If the story that Oliver Stone tells in World Trade Center weren't true, you probably wouldn't believe it.
Not the story of the attack itself: That's almost too easy to believe, and getting easier as the investigation continues ("How 9/11 Might Have Been Prevented" The New Yorker, July 10, 2006, et al. ). In his movie, Stone dramatizes the rescue of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two Port Authority police who were the 18th and 19th (out of 20) people pulled from the apocalyptic rubble of the collapsed towers.
Their day begins as always. McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), who lives in suburban Goshen, awakens before dawn, showers and dresses, takes a peek at his sleeping wife and kids, and goes to work. Will (Michael Pena), who presumably did the same things (we don't get to see his morning ritual), slips into his SUV and drives to his job.
Then, at 25 minutes into the movie, their office rumbles. Everyone thinks at first that a small commuter plane ran out of gas and hit the North Tower. They're sent to the scene, along with thousands of other rescue personnel. Bombs, chemical attacks, biological attacks we're ready for all of that, John says. "But not this." He assembles a team, leads them into the South Tower, and when it collapses, they're trapped beneath it all.
From there, Stone divides his time between the two deeply buried men talking to each other about wives, children, movies and not falling asleep and their families back home. One of the men has a vision of Jesus, a moment surely based on a recollection, and not an invention of Stone and his neophyte screenwriter, Andrea Berloff. Will's wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is Anglo, so their culturally blended in-laws all gather together, like there's actually one America. John's wife (Maria Bello) contends with cognizant older children, especially a worried 13-year-old who snaps at her for not rushing into the city to find his Dad.
This is all adequately done, if entirely unnecessary. World Trade Center could have been a lot worse, but I doubt it could have been much better. Apart from the monumental event that catalyzed the rescue, Stone tells a routine procedural of people under pressure, waiting to live or die, and the people waiting to find out which it will be. He shows virtually nothing of the rest of New York on this day, and only a fleeting clip of Bush that makes him not look stupid. He doesn't interpret, and he doesn't look for metaphors, except for the canned conclusion that from this horror comes a reminder of how good people can be when others need their help.
Frankly, I find that to be very depressing: If we need a tragedy to remind us of our humanity, then it's no wonder these things happen to begin with. World Trade Center is also a superb Marine recruitment reel in the character of Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes, a sort of freelance Marine who goes to New York on his own to help. He's so semper fi that it's almost a parody, and when he arrives at the scene, he wanders around alone for a moment, like a phantom conscience, among the twisted carnage of metal and rock, which the film recreates too well. Among the eerie rubble, where he ponders a woman's empty high-heeled shoe, Karnes says, "It looks like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we're not ready to see."
"He's a tough nut, he's gonna make it, I know it, honey," Will's father says to his daughter-in-law in one of the many lines of dialogue which, if actually spoken in real life and I doubt it can't possibly be made to sound authentic in a movie. World Trade Center has more moments like this than it does those better, simpler, harder ones, where people slip into inconsolable fear and grief. Stone builds tension well at times, and then the music begins to play gently, yes, but still, it's there. If ever a movie didn't need a soundtrack to telegraph its emotions, World Trade Center is it.
This is what happens when a filmmaker serves two masters. Stone has built his reputation as a conspiracy theorist and a brutalist, and the events of Sept. 11 offer plenty of opportunity to be both. Here, he's a sentimentalist, and it doesn't suit. There was no right director for this movie, and no right movie for this material. So in the spirit of its earnest clichés, I can only say: It's too soon. Nothing a dramatic film tells us about That Day can tell us anything that we don't already pray to forget
Rating: 2.5 projectors