World Trade Center Review
The morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 begins like any other morning for the day shift of the Port Authority police precinct in New York. The cops get suited up, attend roll call, and go to work, helping tourists and dealing with petty crime on the streets of Southern Manhattan.
At 8.46am, a plane strikes the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A quarter of an hour later, a second plane crashes into the South Tower. A group of Port Authority cops, headed by duty sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) hurriedly assemble outside the complex, their job to help evacuate the Twin Towers. Together with four volunteers, including Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), McLoughlin enters the World Trade Center's concourse. Shortly after, at 9.59am, the South Tower collapses.
Oliver Stone's World Trade Center recounts what happened to McLoughlin and Jimeno after they woke up, buried in the wreckage, neither of them able to move. It also recalls how their wives, Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and their families coped with the knowledge that the men were missing and in all likelihood dead.
This is a very well-meaning film, telling a true story about good people who went through hell. It doesn't disgrace the material - this certainly isn't the Pearl Harbor-style travesty everyone expected from Hollywood. Dispensing with his usual visual gimmicks and returning to a conventional filmmaking style for the first time since Heaven And Earth, Oliver Stone has delivered a sober and respectful film.
Unfortunately, he hasn't delivered a very gripping one. World Trade Center is the very definition of "worthy but dull". It takes over two hours to tell a story in which very little happens and whose ending we already know.
The script by Andrea Berloff, based on the testimony of the people involved, springs no surprises, finds no insights and doesn't delve deeply enough into its characters to make them interesting. What happens is what we'd have guessed must have happened: the cops try and keep each other's spirits up while they await rescue and their families agonise over the prospect of losing a loved one while they wait for news.
This is a true story that might inspire a moving documentary, in which we heard what happened from the mouths of the people involved and watched news footage of the men being pulled from the rubble. As a feature film however, with Hollywood stars playing the participants, it doesn't work. It's a drama that contains very little actual drama.
Ron Howard's Apollo 13, which this film resembles in many ways, kept us involved because its stranded astronauts and the men in Mission Control were constantly solving problems and fighting for survival. The characters in World Trade Center can do nothing but wait and hope. If there's an interesting way to convey that, Stone and Berloff haven't found it.
The casting is very hit and miss. Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña effectively disappear into their parts but Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who are playing working class cops' wives with several children between them, never look like anything other than glamourous actresses.
The most effective performance in the movie is by Michael Shannon, who plays Staff Sergeant Karnes, a former US Marine and pious Christian who felt compelled by God to go to Ground Zero and help with the rescue. It was his efforts that saved the two cops' lives. Here's a genuinely intriguing character I'd like to have known more about but he's given very little screen time.
World Trade Center is well made, as you'd expect from Oliver Stone. A lot of money has obviously been spent on it and the results are visually and aurally impressive. However, in terms of drawing us into the story, Stone's gloss compares poorly to the quasi-documentary style Paul Greengrass gave United 93, which is an infinitely more effective cinematic treatment of 9/11.
Greengrass's film puts you through the experience its characters had that morning and it stays with you long after seeing it. It captures well the mounting horror most of us felt on the day. Stone's movie leaves the horror in the background, keeps the audience at a comfortable distance with its Hollywood sheen and lets us off with a happy ending. For all its good intentions, it's a poor attempt to tackle the subject matter and it's a major disappointment from Stone.