After the unjustly trashed Alexander, Oliver Stone returns with a sure thing for his reputation: a sad, romantic drama set against the backdrop of a national tragedy. The film is World Trade Center, and while it's one of Stone's least thrilling films, it still proves that Stone is a formidable general behind the camera.
Stone begins the film in the pre-dawn hush, sending viewers into a "where were we then?" frame of mind. John McLoughlin, twenty-one-year vet of the Port Authority Police Department, is up at 3:29 a.m. He leaves his wife Donna (Maria Bello) in bed, sneaks a look at his kids, and heads into the city, where droning routine unexpectedly upends. Gathering volunteers to head downtown to the World Trade Center—site of a mysterious plane crash—McLoughlin grimly admits, "There's no plan" for the unprecedented disaster.
Utterly convincing sets and extras—many of them actual rescuers—serve to recreate, in detail, the WTC site. The cops arrive in time to stand underfoot of the second plane crash and, instead of the impact, Stone depicts a giant shadow across the downtown skyline (followed by the first in a series of foreboding shudders of sound). The tactic of suggestion also approximates the heroes' near-sighted points of view of falling debris: burning chunks of building and rains of water and ash.
With a sensitivity to their emotional process and the actors' faultless performances, Stone observes as McLoughlin leads younger colleagues—including Will Jimeno (Michael Peña of Crash) and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez)—into the foreboding kill zone. Promptly, the tower collapses onto them. Some die instantly, and some struggle for life as their potential rescuers make leery attempts to assess and deal with the scene.
Known as an aggressive stylist, Stone exhibits restraint here. If Stone proves too accommodating to the conventional slo-mo and strings of Hollywood drama, he makes up for it when the walls fall, entombing his star in a decidedly uncinematic situation: pinned-down and motionless in low, low light. The rubble scenes evoke the existentialists: "We're alive in hell. How 'bout that?" laughs one of the cops. McLaughlin laments, "I took 'em in. For what? What good did we do?"
Screenwriter Andrea Berloff offers two compensations for the claustrophobia: the acute, character-driven dialogue between the trapped men, and the parallel storyline of their wives (the avidly doe-eyed Bello and no-nonsense Maggie Gyllenhaal, primarily) and families, fretfully awaiting their fates.
Like Paul Greengrass' United 93, World Trade Center begs questions about its contemporary value. Films like World Trade Center are probably best made now—when the real-life participants can share their stories with filmmakers (or, in the case of United 93, play themselves)—but may be best viewed a generation from now, when their scrupulous historical depiction may prove a useful reminder. Stone preemptively answers the question with a clumsy closing voice-over (9/11, Cage's McLaughlin concludes, brought out "Evil, yeah, sure. But it also brought out the goodness...It's important to talk about the good—to remember").
Despite what you may have heard, World Trade Center isn't apolitical, just understated in its commentary. The heroism of the rescuers transcends politics—here are brave men, not backing down in an extraordinary circumstance. And at first, Stone inserts only political Rorshach tests: Bush's tough-talking press conference and citizens' passing awakenings to the day's implications ("This country's at war!"). Stone chooses his battle: the suitably ambivalent depiction of one Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon)—once a Marine staff sergeant, always a Marine staff sergeant.
Karnes' remarkable road to the WTC site, and his contribution, epitomize the can-do attitude of the American military, but the man's trance-like demeanor and rigorous faith (he consults the Book of Revelation) suggest, too, the fanatical dark side of our armed forces. Karnes intones, "We're going to need some good men out there—to avenge this," and an end title informs us that he served two tours...of Iraq. The political implications are loud and clear: 9/11 was exploited for political gain.
Of course, many will conclude that 9/11 is being exploited all over again, by Hollywood. World Trade Center—the first studio-driven 9/11 feature put into development—is a product, but it has been tastefully crafted, with skill, respect, and apparent accuracy. Just be clear: Stone's emotionally intense film is no entertainment. Like United 93, World Trade Center reopens a wound to offer upsetting catharsis and the cold-comfort triumph of human endurance. Stone's film simply benefits from two elements Greengrass' film could not claim: suspense, and hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.