Cast, crew of ‘Trade Center’ emphasize the goodness of 9/11

When Oliver Stone announced that he would be releasing a movie about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, most people probably imagined one of two things: a crackpot conspiracy theory movie or a complete disaster like his previous film, “Alexander” (2004).

But “World Trade Center” emerges, surprisingly, as a highly effective, old-fashioned, bigger-than-life American melodrama, full of heartbreak and heroism, tragedy and triumph. It leaves one with a sense of hope, that mankind is capable — when challenged — of coming together and accomplishing great things.

That’s just what the moviemakers wanted to talk about when they came to San Francisco recently.

Nicolas Cage portrays John McLoughlin, a real-life New York Port Authority cop trapped in the rubble of the collapsed buildings. For much of the movie, Cage is almost completely immobilized, using only his face and voice for his performance. Cage met with the real McLoughlin for help.

“He used the line ‘solve the pain’ — it was really about how he could solve the pain and survive,” Cage says. “There were images of his family. There was prayer. There was will. And just the feeling of the tenacity of ‘I can’t die. I can’t let Donna down. I can’t let the kids down.’”

Cage also drew on inspirations as diverse as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and John Lennon’s music to find a center for his remarkable performance.

Cage’s co-star Maria Bello portrayed McLoughlin’s wife, Donna, and likewise met with her real-life counterpart. She quickly discovered that this would be no “waiting, worrying wife” role.

“She’s way different than you would expect. She bikes like 50 miles a day,” Bello says. “But there’s a softer quality. And I’m so different from that, I think. I gained a lot of weight for it, and I had blue eyes.”

Bello says that she tends to take her characters away with her; after wrapping last year’s “A History of Violence,” she was in bed for three weeks. But after “World Trade Center,” she says, “Something had definitely shifted. I felt such a softness in me.”

Director Stone focuses on the various tones his material could have taken. Though he accentuates the positive, he does include small sequences of anger, “which led to a desire for revenge,” he says. “I’m not saying it was wrong. I was just showing it as it was. John had the will to survive so there was also a goodness that day. So the film is like that: it’s light and it’s dark. It’s about the lightness fighting to get out.”

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