Oliver Stone’s movies have a certain reputation – a reputation for conspiracy theory and eye-rolling allegation, and a reputation as a once-great director gone to seed with movies like Alexander. As I knew the director only by this reputation, I entered World Trade Center with trepidation, fearing that Stone would offer up a slice of pseudohistory pushing whatever his latest political angle might be. What I got instead was a nonpolitical, poignantly human drama as much about the inherent goodness of humanity as about the tragic events of September 11th.
The movie stars a mustachioed Nicolas Cage as Port Authority Police Sergeant John McCloughlin, a serious man who at one point contends that he was never made a Lieutenant because he does not smile enough. When the two towers of the World Trade Center are struck, McCloughlin leads his team of PAPD cops down to Ground Zero, where they intend to help with the evacuation effort at Tower 1. As they go the tower, however, they become buried under the rubble. Only McCloughlin and one of his men, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) survive, but both are pinned under the rubble and have no way to get out; they can only wait for help to come. Meanwhile, their wives (Maria Bello, in a role as far from her MOD Squad member of Thank You for Smoking as can be imagined, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively) are frantic over the safety of their husbands, about whom they can get no information and don’t know how to cope with the situation.
With so much going on, it could have been difficult to fully understand what was going on, but Stone’s transitions between the two desperate wives and their husbands are deftly done and, most importantly, they make sense. The transitions also contribute to the pacing of the film, making sure that the audience does not get bored, which Stone clearly knows it would if it had to spend two hours doing nothing but watch Cage and Pena talking in a hole.
Stone intersperses this action with the reactions and actions of people around the country, from the Wisconsin police to discharged Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who goes to New York to help in the disaster and is eventually the one to find McCloughlin and Jimeno. Through it all, Stone is able to capture the confusion, outrage, and heartbreak that swept the nation with the fall of the twin towers.
Cage gives a strong performance as McCloughlin, bringing out the character’s believable repressed emotion and reconciling it with his utter devotion to his wife. Still, one criticism that I have read elsewhere, and that I must agree with here, is that Cage is too much of a superstar for this role, his face too recognizable. If Nicolas Cage were a lesser-known actor, his portrayal of McCloughlin would have been picture-perfect; but Nicolas Cage is always Nicolas Cage, and so it is difficult to accept him as an unsmiling cop. This is what makes Michael Pena’s Jimeno so compelling to the audience: he matches Cage blow for blow with a charismatic, heartbreaking performance (and then some), and he has no star power to get in the way. Although Jimeno spends almost the entire duration of the film’s two hours pinned under a concrete block, he is nonetheless able to bring out all the fright, longing, and dimension that makes his character.
Similarly, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, despite having almost no screen time with their respective husbands, nonetheless succeed in creating compelling portraits of women desperately in love with and frantic about their partners – Bello especially turns in an exceptional performance as Donna McCloughlin. Lastly, Michael Shannon rounds out the cast with his small part as Dave Karnes, the ex-Marine. To him belongs the lone political line in the movie, the ominous “We’re going to need some good men to avenge what happened here.” Shannon has the right face for the role, and he is totally believable as Karnes, who says he feels ‘called by God’ to help with the rescue effort. It would have been easy to make Karnes an unpleasant character, but Shannon never allows him to fall into the all-too-easy trap of antipathy. He is different in many ways from the rest of the characters in the movie; but like all of them his only desire is to help those in need, and Shannon brings this out marvelously.
The movie is not without flaws – it stumbles at times, and it often feels claustrophobic, as so much of the action takes place within very small, well-defined areas. And despite the quality of the film, it is still too soon after 9/11, I think, to be making movies about it, and I felt that some of the film’s visceral impact was gained cheaply, by bringing back images in CGI and onscreen that we, horrified, actually saw happening on the television screen. Still, this is a movie that every American should watch. World Trade Center is a movie that unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve; that reminds us that, ultimately, that which unites us is stronger than that which divides us; that reminds us that out of tragedy is often born great nobility, sacrifice, and heroism. You will come from this film moved, saddened, and hopeful, and it is, I think, well worth your time.
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