Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Jay Hernandez, Michael Shannon
Running Time: 129 min.
*** (out of ****)
Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is a well made disaster movie. And I'm not saying that to in any way trivialize the events of September 11th, but rather give you a good idea what to expect from the film. When I reviewed United 93 a few months ago I awarded it four stars, praising it for it's realism and emotional power. It didn't pull any punches as the horror of the high jacked flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 unfolded in real time, documentary style. There were no "performances" or unearned dramatics and by the end your heart was in your throat. You can see more strings being pulled by the writers of World Trade Center and thus it ends up being just a movie about September 11th, which is both good and bad. It's emotional, but it's not emotionally powerful. It doesn't disrespect the memory of those who gave their lives on that day and delivers a message of hope and courage that makes it an interesting companion piece to United 93, which is the far superior film.
Ironically, Stone has taken a lot of heat for making the picture when it's actually the tamest and least controversial of his career. The only thing controversial about this is that he made a movie focusing on the events of 9/11, but even that's a moot point since someone already beat him to it. Still, this it's an involving effort that proves Oliver Stone can show restraint and that Nicolas Cage is capable of giving a controlled performance when he needs to.
The first thing that struck me about this film is how well it captures the look and the feel of September 11th. It was a beautiful fall day and everyone was just going about their business as they would on any morning without a clue of what was about to happen between 10 and 10:30 a.m. In a frightening, yet strangely uplifting shot Stone shows us the New York City skyline in all it's glory with The Twin Towers standing triumphantly over Manhattan. Even though you're prepared for the shot and it's absolutely necessary to tell the story, I'd be lying if I told you it still wasn't very uncomfortable and creepy, especially in the context of a major Hollywood motion picture.
Port Authority policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) are just starting their day when Tower 1 is hit and they attempt to go in and retrieve survivors. They don't make it in. Tower 2 is hit and collapses with them stuck in between and without a clue of what's happening around them. Stone really does a good job of taking us in there with them and letting us feel their fear, confusion and dislocation. The rest of the movie alternates between the officers struggling to stay wake long enough under the rubble for anyone to find them and their wives (played very well by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) collapsing emotionally under a weight of uncertainty that hangs over them for nearly 24 hours. Of the 20 survivors pulled from the wreckage, McLoughlin and Jimeno would be numbers 18 and 19.
Stone has picked their story to tell despite being confronted with a number of different story options and people he could of focused on. It's not hard to see why he picked this as it's definitely the one that most represents the courage demonstrated that day, even if does seem kind of narrow in scope. I felt the beginning and end of the film fared much better than the middle portion which at times felt like a Lifetime movie of the week. It's here where the real problem of making a movie about September 11 comes to the forefront, a problem United 93 was clever enough to avoid. The events of that day are inherently emotional and uncomfortable for everyone, so when you depict that emotion onscreen beyond the actual events with big name actors giving nuanced performances you run the risk of exploiting it.
In a way, I kind of felt like I did watching Bobby last month when they interspersed real footage of Robert Kennedy within soap opera-like storylines featuring big name actors. In all fairness though, the casting here isn't nearly as atrocious and the actors all do fine, restrained work appropriate for the material. I am in no way implying Oliver Stone is trying to exploit this tragedy and I can see from the film his heart was in the right place, but I question if he chose the right means of presentation. He's as careful as possible to show everyone he's taking the high road (which he is) but I couldn't help thinking he was sugar coating the story a little bit and we know if there's one story that shouldn't be sugar coated it's this.
The middle section of the film, with the officers fighting for their survival and their wives at the verge of an emotional breakdown could really be out of any disaster movie. Therein lies the catch-22 where Stone must show the enormity of the situation, but anything he shows will pale in comparison to reality and minimize the event. That's why the real time documentary approach worked so well in United 93. It's just more tasteful and lets us draw our own conclusions instead of the filmmaker doing it for us. On the other hand, we already had that movie so Stone really had no choice but to do something different.
Even if it does feel like a disaster movie at least it's a good one that features excellent performances, especially from Cage. For the longest time Cage has been an actor who specializes in giving us wild performances in huge movies that we forget how well he can tone it down when necessary. While I question the decision to cast a major star in the role, if any American actor has to be leading us into the World Trade Center I really can't think of a better choice than Cage (although Tom Hanks would probably be able to pull it off too). The way he plays McLoughlin, as a good man and a strong leader, you get the impression had his mission not been cut short he would have saved many lives in there.
You may be able to question some of Stone's decisions (why is this PG-13? I think he has responsibility to show it as it happened), but you can't accuse him of not having respect for the families in making the picture. It helps that John McLoughlin and Michael Jimeno co-wrote it. There's none of Stone's trademark crazy editing style (employed in films like Natural Born Killers, JFK and Any Given Sunday) here and the only time he veers into classic Stone territory is a dream sequence involving Jesus and a somewhat controversial scene of officer Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) taking his own life after being mortally wounded in the wreckage. They did not get the family's cooperation for this, so whether this happened or not is going to be up for speculation. Stone's inclusion of a stoic ex-marine who rescues the men (played exceptionally well by Michael Shannon) really hits the mark. I like how his sense of duty and determination was implied by his demeanor but never outright said.
World Trade Center isn't an unforgettable film like United 93, but a competent Hollywood version of what happened that day. After this, there's nowhere else to go with September 11th films. All the bases have been covered. You have to wonder though, what kind of a movie would we have had if the real Oliver Stone had shown up? By playing it safe, he may have unintentionally done that day and it's victims a greater disservice than if he had tried to exploit it.