Okay, admit it. When you heard that Oliver Stone was going to make a movie about the events of September 11, 2001, a lot of you rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh, my God, what’s he going to do now?” Was he going to have Richard Nixon rising from the grave to plant explosives in the twin towers? How were the Grassy Knoll gunmen who killed John Kennedy involved? And how did it all tie back to the Vietnam War?
Surprise. Not only is World Trade Center completely devoid of even the slightest hint of conspiracy theories, the movie could almost be described as reverential. It is certainly Stone’s most conventional film since Wall Street and an unabashedly sentimental tribute to heroic people doing impossible jobs. It’s also a very good movie. Perhaps it’s not the equal of Paul Greengrass’ raw quasi-documentary United 93, but completely worthy of our respect.
This is primarily the story of two Port Authority Police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who became trapped in an elevator shaft between the two buildings when Tower 2 collapsed.
That morning, the biggest worry on the minds of the Port Authority Police was a young runaway girl from Rhode Island who was expected to pass through New York. Veteran Sgt. McLoughlin briefs his squad, which include rookie officer Jimeno, before they go out on their rounds. Walking his beat at the bus terminal, it’s not long before Jimeno looks up to see the shadow of a low flying jet (a bit of dramatic license on Stone’s part, one of the few he allows himself).
After the first crash, the Port Authority cops reassemble at their headquarters and head down to the Trade Center. McLoughlin was involved in the planning in response to the bombing in 1993, so he’s as close as anyone comes to an expert. Even he admits, however, no one could possibly be prepared for they are facing (and this is before the second plane has hit the South Tower).
McLoughlin asks for volunteers to follow him up into the building and Jimeno steps forward. They gather some rescue gear and head for the North Tower. They are still in the concourse between the towers, however, when Tower 2 collapses. They dive into a freight elevator to escape the debris and are trapped there. When they get their bearings, there are three survivors: McLoughlin, Jimeno and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez). Dom manages to free himself and is trying to go for help, when the North Tower collapse and he is killed, leaving McLoughlin and Jimeno alone.
We also meet the families of the two men. Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) is home with their four kids, while Alison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is five months pregnant with their second daughter. We follow their emotional roller coasters as they follow the events in New York and learn that their husbands are among the missing.
The last key figure is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a devoutly religious ex-Marine who feels called to do something to help. He gets a regulation haircut, dons his old uniform and heads from Connecticut to New York City to join the search. It’s probably not giving too much away to say that he plays a key role in the efforts to find the two missing officers.
The scenes involving the trapped McLoughlin and Jimeno must have been tricky, because both characters are completely immobilized by rubble and in almost total darkness most of the time. These scenes are, by design, somewhat repetitive, but that is necessary given the situation these two people were in.
Nicolas Cage gives a performance totally free of the usual Nicolas Cage tropes. His McLoughlin is a tough, no-nonsense veteran cop, played completely free of the hangdog smartass irony you often find in Cage roles. Michael Peña is completely believable as the young, enthusiastic and completely dedicated rookie.
Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhall probably have the tougher roles, because they are largely reactive for most of the film, but both actresses are very convincing as women holding their homes together as the rest of the world seems to be coming apart. The character of Dave Karnes as been criticized (by the real Dave Karnes, no less) as being too robotic, but I found him to be a very compelling portrait of a man driven by a deeply ingrained sense of duty.
The film’s special effects are remarkably seamless, never standing out as they re-insert the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center into the New York skyline and then recreate the devastation of Ground Zero after the towers fell. It’s often difficult to tell Stone’s footage from the real footage taking during the actual events.
As I said, this film is entirely devoid of any hint of the conspiracy theories revolving around the September 11 attack, even at one point explicitly debunking some of those involving the attack on the Pentagon. Stone was actually vilified by the 9/11 conspiracy nutcases for not making World Trade Center into JFK: The Sequel. Fortunately, the raving paranoid who made the 1991 film stayed home. The Oliver Stone who directed this movie is the same guy who quit school to volunteer for combat duty in Vietnam. That guy probably feels like he understands guys like Dave Karnes, which is why he was able to craft such a sincere, unadorned movie about events still wrapped in controversy. I’ve taken my shots at Stone in the past, but for World Trade Center, he deserves nothing but respect.