By making a film celebrating the courage of the first responders to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Oliver Stone will be judged by many conservative commentators to have atoned for his past politically-charged cinematic sins. They may also consider this tribute to American resolve and patriotism in the wake of the disaster to be above criticism. But while no one could impugn the heroic sacrifice made by so many police and firemen in the aftermath of the event, and there’s no reason to doubt Stone’s sincerity, it has to be said, however reluctantly, that his film isn’t worthy of its subject.
Not that the picture suffers from the fault that’s hobbled so many of Stone’s past efforts: it’s not hysterical and frenzied in the fashion of “JFK” or “Natural Born Killers.” The problem with “World Trade Center,” in fact, is that it’s an utterly conventional, indeed almost anonymous piece of filmmaking. And though it benefits visually from today’s technical wizardry, in essence it’s like “Ladder 49,” Jay Russell’s portrait of Baltimore fire-fighters, in that it simply recycles cliches from movies of the 1940s, to the point of featuring dialogue that wouldn’t have been out of place in them. And by casting its praise in terms that now come across as soap-operatic, often verging on camp, it does a disservice to these modern heroes. While some may find its occasional bursts of chauvinism temporarily gratifying, moreover, ultimately they undermine the impact, too.
The best part of the picture is the first reel, which portrays, from a street-level point of view, the actual attack. Since the point is to capture the confusion and horror from the perspective of those on the ground, there are no shots of the planes crashing into the buildings (only the ominous engine roar and a ghastly shadow falling across building facades) and no aerial photographic pizzazz. And while it would have been better to cast someone less recognizable than Nicolas Cage as the Port Authority Police Sergeant who leads a team of volunteers into the first tower to help with the evacuation, the sequence nonetheless captures the experience with terrible immediacy.
Soon, however, the building collapses and the central narrative of “World Trade Center” begins, one that deals with two of the cops–Sergeant McLoughlin (Cage) and patrolman Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) trapped in the debris and trying to keep one another awake until help arrives to free them. Their conversation alternates with sequences centering on their distraught wives: Donna McLaughlin (Maria Bello), who must deal with the anxieties of the couple’s children, and pregnant Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who’s comforted by her extended family. The final thread is provided by Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), an ex-Marine compelled by his sense of duty to search the rubble for survivors. He’s the one who locates McLoughlin and Jimeno, leading to a final act in which extraction specialist Scott Strauss (Stephen Dorff) and paramedic Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley) try desperately to extricate the men before the rest of the structure comes down on them.
These interlocking scenes are surely heartfelt, and they catch the claustrophobic feel of the situation, but they gradually lose a sense of context, so that you begin to feel you might be watching a movie about an emergency following a mine-shaft collapse anywhere. The single-minded concentration on the two men’s ordeal also has the curious effect of diminishing the horror of the enormous loss that surrounds their struggle for survival. The tensions within the McLoughlin family, moreover, are never clearly delineated. And the episodes involving Karnes gravitate toward patriotic bluster (reinforced by a recurrent thread involving an angry Wisconsin cop who comes to Ground Zero to help)–his very last line is especially egregious in this regard–and those with Dorff and Whaley have too much John Ford-ish macho posturing. While the dialogue between McLoughlin and Jimeno might actually reflect what they said, moreover, in the words supplied by Andrea Berloff it doesn’t sound real; one can understand the desire to keep this story family-friendly, but is it plausible that in such a situation absolutely no profanity was used? And a bit of business involving the “Starsky and Hutch” theme song, even if historically true, has an elbow-in-the-ribs character that cheapens the tone.
One can also nit-pick about some carelessness in the storytelling. When Karnes visits a church before going off to New York City, the hymn board reads “Pentecost”–a feast which, coming fifty days after Easter, was long past by September. (If Stone intends the reference to be figurative, indicating the “descent” of a spirit of service on the man, he stages it poorly.) And if you’re going to tag on an epilogue dated two years after the event–with a child who was actually born in the interim running around happily–shouldn’t you make at least some effort to demonstrate that the teens you’ve shown before have aged a bit? Of course, admirers will dismiss those sorts of complaints as trivial. But they’re indicative of a sort of directorial laziness that, whatever one’s feelings about Stone’s previous films, wasn’t characteristic of them; he seems to assume that in this case the emotional underpinnings will carry the film, however desultorily he tells the story.
Still, one has to praise the commitment of the cast. Cage may be too much the star to be entirely convincing as McLoughlin, but he projects strength and confidence, and the less-well known Pena is even better. Bello and Gyllenhaal offer strong support, and though Shannon, Dorff and Whaley all seem too aware that they’re acting in something important, that’s probably Stone’s fault more than theirs. Lesser roles are filled more than adequately across the board, even when the emotional currents aren’t ideally clear. Technically the picture is top-drawer, with Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography and Craig Armstrong’s score standing out, and the visual and special effects teams headed by John Scheele and Marty Bresin do yeoman work.
Some continue to argue that it’s too early for films about 9/11. But that’s the wrong complaint. What’s needed are films worthy of 9/11. And one has already been made–not “World Trade Center,” but Paul Greengrass’ “United 93.” It captured the pain and shock of that day, and the courage with which Americans responded to it, in an honest, unsentimental and powerful way that Stone doesn’t even approximate. “United 93” is harrowing and authentic; this picture is earnest but old-fashioned, obvious and curiously plodding. Well-intentioned it may be, but it’s equally disappointing.