“World Trade Center” from director Oliver Stone and starring Nicolas Cage tells the true story of the heroic survival and rescue of two Port Authority policemen.
In order to judge a movie, one must at least consider audience reaction as part of the equation. As the credits rolled at the end of “World Trade Center,” the bleak silence of theatergoers spoke volumes.
It was the same stunned silence that became endemic following the tragic events of that day five years ago. Wordlessly, spectators filed out of the theater and shambled like zombies to cars in the parking lot.
Though it aims to illustrate the fundamental good in people, Oliver Stone’s depiction of the 9/11 terrorist attacks initially leaves viewers predominantly disheartened and anxious, dredging up the horrors a nation faced as events played out on cable news networks.
In retrospect, the film succeeds more as an emotive snapshot of blue-collar Americans during an unfolding crisis than it does as a drama honoring first responders as heroes.
In the first major Hollywood studio picture to specifically tackle the downing of the World Trade Center towers, Stone uncharacteristically chose to reject the temptation to focus on the complexities of the monstrous attack, the ideological differences that engendered the hatred in terrorist plotters and even the profusion of alternate histories conspiracy theorists have proposed over the last five years. Instead, Stone atypically concentrates primarily on the story of two Port Authority officers sent in to help evacuate the towers in the early stages of the assault.
The commotion and chaos of that morning is adequately conveyed as characters speculate, spread rumors and look for leadership in an impossible situation that grows more dangerous with each passing moment. The collapse of the first tower leaves John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) trapped amidst the steel and concrete of the ruins.
Confusion and claustrophobia become the immediate enemies of the two main characters who have only a vague sense that they are caught up in a national tragedy. Without means of communication, they have no way of knowing the scope of the disaster.
A subplot emerges as Dave Karnes, a former Marine played by Michael Shannon, leaves his job to join search and rescue operations at Ground Zero. Karnes is representative of both the spontaneous compassion and knee-jerk patriotism so many felt following the attacks. Stone spends much of the movie avoiding direct political assertions, but Karnes’ declaration that “some good men” will be needed to “avenge this” is effectively expressive.
Still, it is not the traditional heroes like McLoughlin, Jimeno and Karnes that make this movie memorable. Stone intersperses scenes revolving around the domestic havoc created that fateful day. McLoughlin’s wife, played by Maria Bello, contends with a house full of children wondering if their father will ever come home. Jimeno’s pregnant wife, Allison, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is guarded over by family and friends worried that the emotional trauma might cause her to lose the baby.
In highlighting these family dramas, Stone acknowledges an often ignored or undervalued class of heroes created on 9/11. Most accessible are the sequences showing the long hours spent waiting, tied to the phone, unable or unwilling to turn off the television set replaying the same images over and over again.
Everyone can identify with that. Everyone remembers. “World Trade Center” reminds us that though the memories are painful, they also are essential.