MovieMantz Reviews: ‘World Trade Center’
First Published: August 8, 2006 1:09 PM EDT Credit: Paramount Pictures
-- Verdict: See it!
Four months after "United 93" opened in theaters amidst a storm of "it’s too soon" controversy, and just one month shy of the 5th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, it’s time to relive the horrors of 9/11 once again. Well, sort of.
Where "United 93" took place everywhere but Ground Zero — in the frantic air traffic control towers, in the military confines of NORAD and, of course, aboard the actual doomed flight — "World Trade Center" takes place primarily at Ground Zero. In other words, "World Trade Center" shows you what "United 93" did not, depicting the same harrowing events of that devastating day, but from a different point of view and with a very different tone.
And the filmmaker responsible for this second cinematic take on 9/11: Oliver Stone. Now given Stone’s passionate reputation for embracing politically outlandish and wildly imaginative conspiracy theories, one can be forgiven for assuming that "World Trade Center" would do for the terrorist attacks what 1991’s "JFK" did for the Kennedy assassination.
But "World Trade Center" is not that film — not by a long shot. If anything, it’s surprising how conventional, straightforward and idealistically pro-American it is, especially when compared to some of Stone’s more cynical, stylistically self-indulgent movies like 1994’s "Natural Born Killers" and 1995’s "Nixon." To that extent, "World Trade Center" is the most un-Stone-like film Oliver Stone has ever made — and depending upon your appreciation for his wide-ranging body of work, that’s either the best thing or the worst thing about it.
Since the film is based on the true story of two Port Authority Police Department officers who were pulled from the rubble of Ground Zero, it’s far more uplifting than the impending dread that moviegoers faced with "United 93." The fact that Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) survived the collapse of the towers was a miracle in itself, but that was only the beginning compared to the hellacious experience that was to follow.
For the next 12 hours, while pinned beneath 20 feet of concrete and twisted metal, they had only their voices to help keep each other alive. During that time, raging infernos would burn past their trapped bodies, while other buildings that fell throughout the day would cover them with even more dust and debris. At the same time, their respective wives — Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) in Goshen, NY, and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Clifton, NJ — suffered in their own private hell, waiting helplessly for word about the fate of their loved ones.
As hard as it was to watch, "United 93" was still a fascinating documentary-like fly-on-the-wall account of how trained professionals tried to catch up with the nightmarish events of 9/11 as they unfolded. By contrast, the images depicted in "World Trade Center" will be much more familiar to Americans who were glued to their TV sets that fateful day — smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, office paperwork raining from the sky, shell-shocked survivors covered with ash.
But since Stone shows Ground Zero from the points of view of just McLoughlin and Jimeno, we see only what they see — a shadow of one of the doomed planes before it hits the first tower, one desperate victim leaping to his death from the burning buildings (although others are heard hitting the ground in a jolting thud). And during their brave attempt to rescue survivors, the first tower implodes in a scene of harrowing devastation that will leave you breathless.
Despite being confined for much of the film, Academy Award-winner Nicolas Cage ("Leaving Las Vegas") gives another Oscar-worthy performance as police veteran John McLoughlin, while rising star Michael Pena ("Crash") is also terrific as rookie Will Jimeno. But while their stories are riveting, those of the suffering wives, played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, are less so. Without undermining the significance of their ordeal, the cracks in Andrea Berloff’s screenplay begin to show with stilted dialogue and clichd family interactions, resulting in scenes that are more manipulative than they need to be.
But perhaps the true hero of "World Trade Center" is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon, in a focused performance), a religious ex-Marine from Connecticut who bravely traveled to Ground Zero and miraculously found the two officers buried in the wreckage. That when hoards of rescuers, including Stephen Dorff as an emergency officer and Frank Whaley as a paramedic, risked their own lives to pull them from the unstable mountain of rubble.
It’s heroism like this that makes "World Trade Center" such a powerful, sincere, flag-waving story about courage, survival and the triumph of the human spirit. It’s not the super-political, conspiracy-based film that everyone expected Oliver Stone to make, but since he made three movies about Vietnam (1986’s "Platoon," 1989’s "Born on the Fourth of July" and 1993’s "Heaven & Earth"), who’s to say that he won’t make that 9/11 film somewhere down the line?
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