Oliver Stone is a divider, not a uniter. JFK alienated those who couldn't stomach its political speculations; Natural Born Killers alienated those who found offense with its gleeful approach to serial killer shenanigans; and Alexander alienated, well, everyone with its sheer wretchedness.
So the notion of Oliver Stone tackling a movie about 9/11 almost registers as a sick joke, the ultimate middle finger to anyone who has ever complained about his previous excesses. "You think my past films were controversial?" one could almost imagine hearing him sneer. "People, you ain't seen nothing yet!"
So the most startling thing about World Trade Center is that it's by far the least controversial movie Oliver Stone has ever made. There's practically nothing in the way of gonzo filmmaking, political commentary or outrageous acting -- instead, the entire film operates at a hushed level, its nobility standing tall in each and every frame. It's hard to find any trace of potentially incendiary material. Conversely, it's also hard to get terribly excited over the final product.
World Trade Center focuses on the Port Authority Police Department officers who would eventually be recognized as two of the only 20 people to be rescued from the rubble of the Twin Towers. September 11 begins as any other day for John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), but like everyone else on that fateful morning, they soon are having to digest incomplete messages involving an airplane crashing into one of the towers. Springing into action, they're among the men who enter the building with the intention of aiding any potential survivors, even as they try to decipher additional news items suggesting that the second tower has also been hit by a plane. Timing's not on their side, however, as the towers collapse just as the officers begin making their way up from the ground to the floors above.
Their colleagues lose their lives, but John and Will somehow survive, though at a great price. Both men find themselves pinned -- and in great pain -- by the fallen debris, their only glimpse of the outside world a small shaft of sunlight that penetrates straight into the heart of the darkness. Realizing that it will take hours -- maybe even a day or two -- before they're found and rescued, John and Will decide that they'll count on each other's company to survive, by talking their way through the pain and isolation until someone discovers them. Meanwhile, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) wait impatiently at their respective homes with other family members, anxious to find out whether their spouses are dead or alive.
I don't think it's too cynical to suggest that after the commercial and critical drubbing of Alexander, a whipped Stone was only too happy to serve up a sentimentalized tale almost certain to gain wide public approval. Working from a script by first-timer Andrea Berloff, Stone keeps his rabble-rousing methods fully in check -- even his typically frenetic shooting style has been replaced by a more somber m.o., with lengthy camera holds on saintly faces and nary a rapid jump-cut in sight. Unfortunately, the end result is a movie that feels oddly impersonal. That's in striking contrast to this past spring's United 93, the superb docudrama that provided audiences with a you-are-there immediacy. Every second of United 93 related in some way to the specific events of that day. On the other hand, replace the real-life characters of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno with two fictional guys trapped in a collapsed building, and what you're left with is a 1970s-style TV movie-of-the-week, the sort that invariably starred the likes of Christopher George or Lee Majors. For a more recent precedent, the firefighter flick Ladder 49 largely covered the same ground (in that snoozer, John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix were the two lifesavers likewise chatting it up amid the bricks and flames). And despite the strong performances by Bello and Gyllenhaal, the numerous sequences centering on the strong-willed wives are no different than similar moments from countless WWII dramas, when the women are seen staring wistfully out of windows while their men are off trying to make the world a better place.
Like United 93, World Trade Center also tries to keep politics out of the picture; instead, it focuses on the day as a shining example of American solidarity, before the government began reshaping the tragedy for its own exploitive means (was anything as morally reprehensible as the GOP using Ground Zero as the site for the 2004 Republican National Convention?). Yet for all of Stone's timidity, the material brings out some undeniable truths. The movie's most poignant sequence comes when Stone chooses to briefly show the international community learning about this monstrous terrorist attack. It's the moment when the US had the sympathy and support of practically every country around the globe, and as we watch this segment, we're heartbroken upon realizing how the Bush administration has spent the last five years pissing away all that goodwill, in effect turning us into a country that's now feared and despised rather than embraced and admired. A political perspective also appears through the character of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a Marine who claims God personally ordered him to Ground Zero. Karnes is clearly a hero -- he's the guy who found McLoughlin and Jimeno -- yet he's also the sort of mindless warrior too easily swayed by those in charge. He swears vengeance against those who destroyed the WTC, a sentiment we can all share. Except a footnote reveals that he served two tours of duty in Iraq -- like so many others, fighting in the wrong war for the wrong reasons.
Stone prefers that we don't think too much of such sticky situations, and that's fine. This nonpartisan treatment certainly allows the movie's wholesome humanity to shine through, which in turn leads to some strong sequences detailing the manner in which John and Will deal with their hellish situation. Pena (best known as the locksmith in Crash) is especially impressive, though Cage (toning it down) likewise registers some potent moments. The women also rate their own highly charged encounters, notably a tear-jerking segment in which Bello's character sympathizes with a mother who painfully recalls how her son, an elevator operator at the WTC, might be among the victims, and her crushing guilt that she yelled at him before he left for work that day.
This is often powerful stuff, but in the final analysis, it's still a sanitized, Hollywood version of 9/11. For a harrowing experience that feels more like the real deal, United 93 is the one to see. It hits DVD on September 5.