Mere weeks after the fifth anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York City and Washington DCand a few short months behind Paul Greengrass’ brilliant United 93, controversialdirector Oliver Stone gives us the second 9/11 movie of 2006, WorldTrade Center. Anyone expecting a stylised, political powderkeg alongthe lines of JFK, or a heavy-handed mess like Alexander, should stand by to be surprised.
Based on the true (personal) story, World Trade Center is about JohnMcLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and William Jimeno (Michael Pena), two New YorkPort Authority police officers who, along with three of their fellowofficers (and hundreds of other first responders), raced into the burningtowers to help with evacuating survivors. Before they had thechance to begin, however, the first tower collapsed. McLoughlin and Jimeno,the only survivors of their group, found themselves pinned under 20 feetof rubble and now in need of rescue themselves.
While the two men struggled to keep themselves – and each other – alive,their wives, children and parents also went through their own version ofhell. Until an ex-Marine from Connecticut, who had left work that day to helpwith the recovery operations, found the two 12 hours later, theMcLoughlin and Jimeno families had had no word of whether their loved ones werein the towers when they collapsed, or had survived if they were.
Of all the filmmakers working in Hollywood today to direct a 9/11 film,Oliver Stone would not have been my first, tenth, or twentieth choice. WhenI heard that his name was attached to the project, my eyes rolled of their own volition. Images of multiple film stocks, migrane-inducing edits,politicising and the odd conspiracy theory filled my mind and forced me toshudder. Gone was the director who delivered passionate and brilliant dramassuch as Salvador, Platoon and JFK, replaced by adirector so enamoured with psychedilic visuals and near-incoherentnarratives. You might be able to get away with this type of filmmaking withNatural Born Killers or Alexander, but not with a fact-based9/11 drama.
Much to my relief, Stone learned the meaning of the word “restraint”sometime between Alexander and World Trade Center. The veteranhelmer leaves the irritating acid-trip flourishes at home anddelivers a straightforward, emotional and ultimately inspiring tale ofcourage and survival. He draws an ample amount of his directorial strengthfrom Andrea Berloff’s screenplay and his fine ensemble cast and perfectlycaputres the claustrophobic hell that John and Will endured. He also derivesgreat benefit from superb production and sound design as well as a low-keybut very heartfelt musical score by Craig Armstrong.
The film does stumble, if only once or twice. Moments such as twohallucinations – one involving Jesus delivering a bottle of water to Jimeno andanother involving McLoughlin and his wife arguing about…kitchencabinets? – could have been better handled or left out completely. AndBerloff’s dialogue every so often slips into clich.Fortunately, this isn’t enough to switch us off or obscure theefforts of cast and crew to deliver the goods.
Cage delivers an understated turn as McLoughlin that looks like one of hisbetter acting jobs. Pena, whom you might remember as theLatino locksmith from Crash, is equally impressive in his firstreal lead role. The two leads are given solid support from Maggie Gyllenhaaland Maria Bello as spouses Allison Jimeno and Donna McLoughlin, whileMichael Shannon is effective as Dave Karnes, the former Marine who found thespot where McLoughlin and Jimeno were buried alive.
World Trade Center works on several levels. It successfullyrecreates the atmosphere and events at Ground Zero on 9/11. It’s also anengrossing and inspiring drama that shows how the worst of circumstances canbring out the best in people. But perhaps most importantly, the film servesas a tribute to those who risked their lives on that fateful day to savethousands of others. It does this not with cheap emotional manipulation, butwith a great deal of respect.