There was a nearly brilliant motion picture released in April circling around the events of 9/11, one that defied all skepticism to become a sobering, powerful, blisteringly real, tragically uplifting story about the goodness of humanity triumphing over the face of evil. It was named "United 93
," was directed by Paul Greengrass, and still stands on this date in August as the best film so far in 2006. Directed by Oliver Stone (2004's "Alexander
"), "World Trade Center" is so much the lesser movie that it's a shame they warrant comparison at all. Slickly filmed where the other one was gritty, glaringly written instead of taking on a naturalistic documentary-style feel, and cowardly watered-down with a PG-13 rating that marginalizes the details of that tragic day in 2001, "World Trade Center" comes close to being the self-serving Hollywood production many had feared since the film was announced.
Scripted by Andrea Berloff, "World Trade Center" purports to focus its attention not on September 11 as a whole, but on the personal stories of Port Authority Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), two out of only twenty people who survived the collapse of the towers. Crushed by the debris and unable to move, McLoughlin and Jimeno have no good idea of how badly they are injured, but rely on the company of each other to pull through the horrific ordeal until they are rescued. As their experiences play out, director Oliver Stone makes the mistake of leaving these two men for a number of inadequately developed subplots that just get in the way.
While awaiting news, Jimeno's pregnant wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) grapples with the possibility that she will have to explain to her four-year-old daughter that her father isn't coming home, and McLoughlin's wife Donna (Maria Bello) tries to keep a game face in front of their four children. Also figuring into things is ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a deeply religious man who believes he has received word from God to make his way to the World Trade Center site and help out.
It has been said that Oliver Stone attempted to remain as truthful as possible to who John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno were and what they and their families went through, but by working so closely with the real-life people "World Trade Center" lacks a much-needed outside perspective. The characters are portrayed in such a positive light that they resemble demigods rather than flawed, blemished human beings, and the occasional clunky flashbacks to times spent with their families stick out with idealized artificiality.
Posing as an even bigger hindrance is the very choice to narrow in on two of the survivors while relegating the thousands upon thousands of victims to nameless, faceless status. Because the viewer already knows that there was a happy ending for McLoughlin, Jimeno and both families, the film, unintentionally or not, becomes off-putting and narcissistic. As the enormity of the events of 9/11 are pushed into the background, the audience is forced into watching the piddling temporary crises of a group of people headed for a generally positive outcome. The experiences these two families went through are in no way, shape or form insignificant, but as the movie presses forward with such a minimal scope, it is downright discouraging to realize just how many other much more urgent, meaningful and heroic stories could have been told about those that risked their lives for others and ultimately didn't come out of it to see another sunrise.
Nicolas Cage (2005's "The Weather Man
") and Michael Pena (2005's "Crash
") deliver the most effective performances as John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno. When the scenes are about only them, immobile under the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center and hanging on for dear life by the sound of each other's voices, the film is enrapturing and poignant. When the cameras leave them, they are missed. As wives Donna and Allison, Maria Bello (2005's "A History of Violence
") and Maggie Gyllenhaal (2005's "Happy Endings
") are dedicated and believable in actualizing the whirlwind of emotions these women are going through while their husbands' fates hang in the balance. Still, their fine acting is at the service of dreary and predictable character arcs that resemble running in place. Aside from a heartbreaking scene in which Donna unexpectedly connects with the grieving mother of an elevator operator who was working in one of the towers, Bello's and Gyllenhaal's subplots are thankless.
Coincidentally, the most chilling section of "World Trade Center" is its first ten minutes. As New Yorkers rise from bed and head out to their jobs, the unforgettable memories of tranquility on that sunny Tuesday morningthe calm before the storm, if you willcome rushing back like a pleasant dream that everyone remembers suddenly turned into a living nightmare. Once news starts coming in that a plane hit one of the towersan image never seen in the movieOliver Stone's reluctance to face head-on the utter horrors that follow somehow feels even more negligent and irresponsible to the victims of 9/11 than if he were to have taken a more graphic approach to the subject matter. By the end, the picture's initial purposes to show in a straightforward manner the courage and heroism born on that dark day has been lost in favor of a lot of misguided sentimentalizing and soaring musical strings. The film concludes with a solemn list of the officers' and emergency workers' names who lost their lives in the attack. They deserve the recognition, but the soapy, emotionally impassive "World Trade Center" regrettably doesn't earn them.