Review: World Trade Center (2006)

Director: Oliver Stone

***

Five years after the horrors of 9/11, Oliver Stone made a film about it. “How dare he?!”, they said. One of the most provocative of mainstream American directors attempting to make a film about the US’ darkest hour when the effects were still being felt (mostly by Iraqis and Afghans) should have been a powder keg. It was inevitable that films would be made, but by the man who made JFK and Nixon? Hit the dirt!

No, wait! It’s alright. You can come back. Anyone expecting a probing and critical dissection of the events of that September day will be in for quite a shock. World Trade Center is a personal story; Stone retracts his claws in favour of a story of survival and hope. If this sounds a bit sappy to you, you’re mostly right, but it still packs a punch.

World Trade Center focuses on John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), two Port Authority officers on duty when the Twin Towers are struck by two hijacked aeroplanes. A group of officers volunteers to enter the towers on a search and rescue mission, but only get into the lobby when the tower collapses on top of them. The opening half-hour of World Trade Center sees Stone at his most upfront, as we witness the towers burning and people falling to their deaths. The grim realities of that day are captured so effectively that what follows can’t help but pale in comparison. Once the towers fall, McLoughlin and Jimeno are pinned under rubble, and with little else they can do, they talk in order to kill time and take their minds off the pain they are in. Meanwhile, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) are forced to wait to hear about what has become of their men. The four leads are uniformly excellent; Cage and Peña evoke a lot of emotion despite being rendered immobile in the debris. Tales of children’s achievements and life plans are exchanged as they try to maintain consciousness; when they do sleep, they dream of happier times. It’s hard to be cynical about such potentially mawkish material when it is based directly on the men’s experiences in the wreckage (the real McLoughlin, Jimeno and their wives served as consultants on the film).

Stone is committed to retelling the story of these men not as a direct 9/11 story, but a personal journey and a testament to hope. Andrea Berloff’s script may be inspired by McLoughlin and Jimeno’s ordeal, but her reverence leads to some bizarre scenes (at one point, Jimeno hallucinates about Jesus offering him a bottle of water). Some would also argue that a storyline involving a volunteer rescuer, Sergeant Karnes (Michael Shannon), is too gung-ho and oozes bleeding-heart patriotism, which is just not Oliver Stone material.  It flirts with sentimentality, but that was always going to happen. World Trade Center is a finely constructed film, committed to courage over carnage. Anyone expecting a probing dissection of the events of the day in the vein of vintage Oliver Stone, however, will be sorely disappointed.

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