"World Trade Center," directed by Oliver Stone, is the first big-budget movie to focus on the events of Sept. 11, and it’s what you’d expect from Hollywood’s mill at this mere five-year point, post-trauma: a conventional, palatable, respectful film that highlights every jot of positivity it can squeeze from its story of working-class heroism. What’s missing is Stone’s trademark boldness.
Hollywood excels at underscoring the bright bits in life’s prevailing grayness, and Stone’s movie, an apolitical telling of one of Sept. 11’s most heartening stories, reflects that.
The fact-based protagonists are John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), Port Authority policemen who, following the attacks on the World Trade Center, entered Tower 1 to evacuate people. They ended up immobilized under rubble until, nearly dead, they were pulled from the crumbled structure. The film dramatizes their courage, harrowing experiences and rescue.
His famed tendency toward the cockamamie notwithstanding, Stone, when you consider his established ability to depict American crises rivetingly ("Platoon," "JFK"), is near-ideal for this material. And in the tower sequences, he delivers.
Taking us into a nightmarish foxhole of sorts, Stone vividly but nonexploitively suggests what it was like inside the collapsing skyscrapers (spectacular sound effects enhance the experience). Cage and Pena, doing most of their acting from the neck up, affectingly convey the survival modes of their characters, who converse to stay awake and alive. Stone’s depiction of the rookie Jimeno captures the American brand of spirit that can make anything seem possible, along with the maiming of that dream.
But too often, the film is, uncharacteristically for Stone, a standard Hollywood drama containing nothing adventurous or surprising.
Unlike Paul Greengrass’ "United 93," which, despite its story line, achieved genuine uplift with its down-to-earth, nuanced depictions of courage and humanity, Stone’s film suffers from one-noteness and sentimentality.
Particularly problematic are the home-front scenes contrived by Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff. You feel manipulated and tear-jerked as devoted wives Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) agonize over their husbands’ unknown fate.
The other significant character, Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), the zealous Marine pivotal to the rescue, comes off intangibly as a near-mythic figure.
With additional, perhaps gutsier, Sept. 11-themed films sure to emerge, Stone’s drama stands as a respectable job of honoring the fallen, celebrating the survivors, and sharing an irresistible story. But even at this still-early point on the country’s recovery path, that’s not good enough.