WORLD TRADE CENTER directed by Oliver Stone, written by Andrea Berloff, with Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal. 129 minutes. A Paramount release. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Who got to oliver stone? It's hard not to suspect some secret cabal of Dick Cheney strategists cultivating a Hollywood fifth column led by the director of JFK and Nixon. How else to explain a movie as sober, intense and emotive as World Trade Center, especially when it's released one month before the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and 12 weeks before mid-term elections? That kind of grief-stoking can't be accidental.
Conspiracy theories are loads of fun, but usually the truth is more right there than out there. The fact is that Stone was never a radical progressive so much as a disappointed patriot. All of his films take the unique splendour of America as a given, and this one is no exception. That's partly why a story focused on just two men trapped in the rubble of one downed building works at all. People lie trapped in the rubble of downed buildings all the time. We've just seen a full month of it. But, by Stone's lights, these men and this building were special.
Based on the true story of Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), World Trade Center begins, as it must, on an ordinary Tuesday morning. McLoughlin leaves his wife (Maria Bello) and kids still sleeping and drives into Manhattan. There's a routine briefing at the station, the shadow of a plane passes low overhead, and then all hell breaks loose.
Cage is surprisingly effective in these early scenes, stripped of his mannerisms and freakish charisma. A moustache helps. He leads a team into the concourse between the two towers, but before they can begin their rescue, 110 stories collapse on them. Most are killed instantly. McLoughlin and Pena lie pinned beneath chunks of concrete, staring up at little tubes of daylight.
The tech here is state-of-the-art but never overblown. Although there are spectacular recreations later on of the still smoking ground zero site, the film uses its relatively modest $63 million budget to impose a feeling of chaotic claustrophobia. Much of WTC's middle is in near darkness, which makes the shifts to the cops' families waiting and worrying all the more disorienting.
The script gives their wives little to do besides push through panic to resolute action, but Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal manage to make that interesting.
The real action is at ground zero, where Stone uses a sound palette that ranges from deafening din to graveyard silence. Being Stone, he can't resist making that thought literal in a Lazarus shot near the end.
But there are shockingly few of his trademark flourishes. He allows himself one hallucinatory glowing Jesus that could have been lifted from The Doors, and one flashy effects shot lays bare the film's conservative beating heart. The camera rises from the rubble below the towers all the way to a satellite in the sky from which news of the World Trade Center attack is being broadcast to a stunned world. It's the only moment in the film that gives any kind of global context to 9/11. Disappointingly, the context is universal sympathy. No image captures America's literal reach better than this one.
Unlike Paul Greengrass's United 93, which immersed its audience in the now of its events, World Trade Center always reminds us of the day's historical importance. Even though its characters are often literally in the dark about what's happening, the film's grim camera style and solemn music give each moment retrospective significance.
It's as if 9/11 not only clarified Stone's conservative politic but also forced a more conventional style on him. World Trade Center has the sense of mission and the emotional tone of Frank Capra's second world war documentaries. It's a reminder to willing audiences of Why We Fight.