World Trade Center
2006, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Jay Hernandez, Armando Riesco, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 11, 2006
This is not the movie we might have expected from Oliver Stone on this subject. Most commonly recognized for his bold, broad strokes and contrarian investigations, Stone here abandons the grand sweep for the miniature view. Instead of conducting a full-on exploration of the innumerable facets of this national tragedy, a wound still raw on the eve of its fifth anniversary, Stone has opted to zero in on discrete individuals and tell their fact-based stories with a remarkable economy of expressionistic detail and bombast. In fact, it's more likely that viewers will see in the film representations of the attitudes and opinions they themselves hold, rather than anything Stone might have intended to convey. From its nondescript title on down, World Trade Center serves as something of a Rorschach test. Each viewer can find in the title whatever meaning may be desired. Technically, Stone's film is an impressive achievement. It is unlikely you will ever again use the word "harrowing"; with blithe abandon after spending so much time trapped with these two unlikely survivors in the groaning rubble of the shattered monoliths. The painstakingly accurate story of the two trapped Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Peña), is excruciating to endure, despite widespread knowledge of their situation's fortunate outcome. Their day starts out as an ordinary Tuesday, as they troll the bus terminal for the usual panhandlers, vagrants, and teenage runaways. Then the call comes in, and McLoughlin's squad rushes downtown, though McLoughlin is the first to admit that there is no plan for a rescue on this scale. Rather than the gung-ho heroes of popular myth, McLoughlin's men are shown as hesitant realists when asked to volunteer to enter the tenuously standing buildings. Once they're inside, the rescue mission has barely begun before the building collapses around them. Most of the movie is spent with the survivors McLoughlin and Jimeno, their bodies buried and only their faces visible to the audience, although not to each other. With them, we are forced to endure what is unendurable, to find shards of hope within the hopelessness and impotence. Stone offers respites by crosscutting between the trapped men and their occasional hallucinations and families, living in limbo while awaiting word of any sort. These passages do little to amplify the story; they serve merely as palliative cutaways from the men's dire circumstances. More frightening than the darkness and the implied pain these two experience are the sounds of the building collapsing and bodies falling around them. (Remember this movie's sound design come awards season.) Another story strand is that of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), the ex-Marine who feels called by God to go to Ground Zero, and becomes the rescuer who discovers McLoughlin and Jimeno. His declamation, "You are our mission," becomes the film's healing moment. This is the idea Stone wants us to take away from his film, a concept also reformulated in Cage/McLouglin's voiceover in the epilogue: 9/11 also brought out the goodness in people. Like Mrs. Miniver, Stone's film has given us a story about perseverance during wartime (with an interventional assist from one dedicated Marine). And although the conclusion is heavily sentimentalized, Stone finds the common ground Americans can rally around for relief from the devastation: We are, in the final analysis, good people.