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World Trade Center (2006) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 09 August 2006
Most reviews of “World Trade Center” begin by explaining that it is a straightforward telling of some events of 9/11, that Stone, who made “JFK,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Nixon,” here doesn’t dramatize his personal political views. As if that’s somehow more important than the movie.

The entire movie is carefully understated, never once going for the epic, even though, lord knows, that approach is potential in the material. Instead, Stone sticks to the events as experienced by a couple of Port Authority cops, and to how their families deal with this almost overwhelming crisis. The cops, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), leave their homes early on the morning of September 11, 2001. It’s a commonplace day, and Stone shows us ordinary people rising to meet the day. Some arrive by subway, others on foot, others still on the Staten Island ferry. There are glimpses of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background occasionally, but nothing is emphasized, no ominous music swells on the soundtrack. We don’t even see the two planes; the only representation of them is when Jimeno sees the shadow of an airliner passing by overhead at a low altitude.

At the Port Authority police station, the usual morning assignments begin when word comes that a plane has slammed into one of the twin towers. McLoughlin, who’s been trained in disaster response, takes charge of a small group of cops and they head for the World Trade Center in a truck and commandeered bus.

As they approach, they see the welling smoke; they begin to pass dazed and actually injured pedestrians. After they disembark, they see a lone body fall from the towers to the ground below. News reports tell them that a second plane has crashed into the other tower. The cops begin to become very uneasy, very nervous, but McLoughlin keeps them focused on the task at hand. They descend to the concourse that ran between the two towers, a plush urban mall. They gather oxygen tanks and with a roar like the end of the world, they see debris crashing into the open areas ahead of and behind them. McLoughlin immediately orders them to run to the nearby elevator shaft. Not all of them make it.

Throughout the movie, we see how Donna (Maria Bello), McLoughlin’s wife, and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who’s pregnant, respond to the crisis. They’re both surrounded by supportive relatives. For some time, no one can get a solid grasp on just what’s happening—nor can much of the rest of the world, which Stone shows in news footage cutaways. We also meet staunch Marine Karnes (Michael Shannon), who’s in New England. A devout man, he visits his church, where he is convinced God tells him to go to New York and help out. But the focus remains on McLoughlin and Jimeno.

When the tower above them comes crashing down, the two are trapped under fallen concrete, and—soon enough—all the other cops who made it to the elevator shaft (which McLoughlin knew was safer than the concourse) die; one, trying to save Jimeno, is killed in front of him.
And then things are very quiet. It’s also very dark, but a few shafts of light reach down to the trapped men. Occasionally, through the chinks in the debris around them, they can see flames. Neither of them can move, although Jimeno can tug at a length of rebar above him, creating loud clanks.

Much of the movie consists of closeups of the grimy faces of Cage and Pena. They work at keeping the other awake, both sure that if their partner falls asleep, he will die. They’d just been coworkers before, with McLoughlin a rank or two higher, and knew relatively little about one another; at first, they don’t even know the other’s first name.

In addition to showing how Donna and Allison (who don’t know each other) deal with the events (in addition to everything else, Allison is pregnant), Stone includes brief shots here and there around the world and in the U.S. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Goshen, New York, Wilton, Connecticut.

A term most of us learned on 9/11 creeps into the dialogue—“First Responders.” Soon, Stone is focusing on the efforts of these people who are the first on the scene of the collapsed towers (the only shots of the towers collapsing seem to be from actual news footage). Eventually, Karnes arrives to join them. One man, who used to be a paramedic, steps into that role because there’s no one else around to handle it.

Stone’s choice of what details to show is perceptive and intelligent; nothing is magnified, nothing is added; the movie tells a tale of extreme bravery in the face of extreme catastrophe. It’s about ordinary people whose ordinary lives were spectacularly altered by the events of 9/11. Stone points no fingers; he salutes these heroes. If the movie isn’t quite as involving as it might have been, this is probably due more to the viewers’ recollections of the events, not to what’s on the screen.

At the end, Stone shows us utterly empty subway cars rattling along beneath Manhattan streets. We also see one of those memorial walls for the missing and dead that became painfully familiar in the weeks after the terrorist attack, The score by Curtis Armstrong, while usually understated, does become more sentimental than necessary under these scenes.

Technically, the film is everything it should be—and in a sense, a bit more. Most filmmakers would show the planes hitting the towers, and the collapse of the buildings later on. But Stone sticks largely to the events as seen by McLoughlin, Jimeno and their families: from the viewpoint of the Port Authority cops, we HEAR the collapse of the towers, and it sounds like the end of the world. In terms of sound recording and editing, “World Trade Center” is nothing less than brilliant.

Cage, Pena, Bello and Gyllenhaal are all excellent, but the movie is really an ensemble piece. Everyone serves the movie, not themselves; there are no showy parts, everything is understated and confined—in Cage’s and Pena’s case, quite literally. Both actors are especially expressive, considering that, in Pena’s case, we see only his upper torso and head; in Cage’s case, most of the time, we see only his face.

Somewhat uncharacteristically, Stone didn’t write the screenplay himself; instead, it’s the work of Andrea Burloff, basically unknown until this movie. She takes a tough, unsentimental approach to this intense material; Stone followed her lead in his simple directness. He has no axes to grind, no points to make—beyond the heroism—given the worst circumstances, some people can and will do the right thing. Some even consider it their duty. The most moving line in the movie for me comes when the first responders realize McLoughlin and Jimeno are alive and need rescuing. “We’re not leaving you, buddy,” one calls out. “We’re Marines—you are our mission.” The movie concludes with a few titles explaining the post-9/11 histories of the main characters.

Oliver Stone is one of the most irritating directors working in Hollywood, frequently annoying even those on the same side of the political spectrum. But this time, Stone has made a movie for everyone, a tribute rather than a memorial, a reminder that even during the tragic events of 9/11, people continued to show the best traits of mankind.

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