World Trade Center may have been one of the most closely watched releases of the summer. Would Oliver Stone screw up 9/11 the way he screwed up JFK (i.e., politically), or like he screwed up Alexander (through sheer badness)? Could his film possibly be as powerful and respectful as United 93, which was released just a few months earlier?
Newsweek recently put the movie on its cover, both as an introduction to art about 9/11, and to endorse it as a good movie.
Though I wouldn’t necessarily give it a cover story, World Trade Center is not a bad movie, and Oliver Stone need not go into hiding.
PG-13 for intense content, disturbing images, language
Based on accounts from the actual “participants,” (the film’s word, not mine), the movie opens on a beautiful montage of dawn in New York. It’s a wordless opening that eases the audience into the movie the way a leisurely waking can start a good day.
Our protagonist is John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), a Port Authority police officer who starts his day at 3:29 a.m. It’s just another Tuesday for him, and when the first plane hit the tower, he heard about it on the news, just like almost everyone else.
A Job To Do
The movie has an excellent, matter-of-fact pace that shows McLoughlin and his partners reacting to the situation calmly and professionally. (The Port Authority, along with all the other jurisdictions, is called to the WTC to assist.)
When the second plane hits, McLoughlin doesn’t even see it, and since he’s on the bus on his way downtown, he doesn’t even know about it. The other cops have heard rumors from cell phone calls about nukes and Israel, but they have no information to go on. These details are remarkable and observant; it’s almost impossible to accurately remember how much we didn’t know on that first day.
When the cops arrive, the scene is shocking, but their reaction reveals is that this is just another part of their job. They need to get in there and help evacuate the building. It’s going to be a bad day, but right now, they have a task. Their step-by-step approach is strangely normal and strangely reassuring.
In the Rubble and Out
I won’t reveal exactly what’s happening when the towers fall, because it comes as a surprise. But it happens fairly early in the film. After the dust settles, we see that McLoughlin and two partners have survived, although they are pinned in the rubble under tons of concrete, steel, and plastic.
Now the movie becomes something like a stage play, with a single setting and only three actors. In fact, I thought of the film Touching the Void, about the amazing rescue of Joe Simpson from an ice cave after a climbing accident.
Unfortunately, the pace of the movie suffers. Very little happens in the pile of rubble. We do get to know a lot about them, but it’s not quite enough to sustain a feature film.
And so Stone cuts to scenes of the families, who have to wait in front of their TVs and phones for any news of their missing loved ones. These scenes, too, suffer from being overlong and underplotted. Cutting ten or fifteen minutes might have made the movie better.
Stone also shows us the story of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), an inactive Marine who, when he heard the news, went to church, got a haircut, and went to New York. There, uninvited and unauthorized, he took it upon himself to help search the rubble for survivors.
Power and Beauty
World Trade Center packs an emotional wallop. Thankfully, it’s all earned and justified. There are no cheap tricks to artificially play with the audience’s emotion. The one time I felt that the movie might have been trying to move me, I had to admit that the action on screen justified the outburst.
Aside from the few pacing problems I mentioned above, the only quibble I have with World Trade Center is that Maria Bello, who plays Mrs. McLoughlin, is too beautiful. Stone has carefully cast normal-looking New Yorkers for nearly every other role, but Bello, with her blond hair and electric blue eyes, jumps off the screen like a movie star, and it’s frankly a little distracting.
I wouldn’t call World Trade Center a must-see. Nor will it likely become the definitive post-9/11 movie. But it’s more substantive and moving than your standard Hollywood summer release, so consider a trip to the theater to see how one New Yorker’s Tuesday shaped up, five years ago.