No matter what you think this film is about, you will be wrong. If you're worried that memories of the tragic incident in New York will cause you distress, then stay away. If you're one of those complainers arguing that it's "too soon" -- and it is not; this subject matter should be remembered -- don't see it. But you'll be missing a moving, thoughtful and thought-provoking film. And you won't be among audiences who get a look at a very different side of Oliver Stone.
Stone has explored violence in Natural Born Killers, Any Given Sunday and Platoon. He's gone unflinchingly political with Salvador and Born on the Fourth of July. And he's taken on bigger-than-life characters in Nixon and The Doors.
In World Trade Center, he tells a straightforward story of two regular Joes caught up in an extraordinary situation. It's not really about the events of that awful day. Oh, there are iconic shots of the burning towers, and the bits of fluttering paper fluttering, and a wall of missing-persons photos. But the film is about honor, bravery, sacrifice, perseverance, the power of family and friendship. It could have been about how people behave during any major disaster; it happens to have 9/11 as its backdrop.
It opens with a subtle, wordless exploration of a problematic marriage. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), a sergeant in the Port Authority Police Department, wakes at 3:30 am -- again -- showers, dresses, grabs his gun, and leaves without a goodbye -- again -- while his wife, Donna (Maria Bello), lays in bed stewing. It's not just that she, too, has been woken up -- again -- at 3:30. The look on her face, in the dark, shows something a lot deeper that's been going on for a long time.
But it sure is a beautiful morning in Manhattan, where streets, cars, busses, ferries are filled with people. There's jovial banter in the police locker room, followed by roll call and orders of the day from no-nonsense Sgt. McLoughlin. But just eight minutes into the film, an ominous shadow from above cuts across the teeming streets, followed by a building-rattling bang. Moments later, to a mournful string score, the police are crowded onto public busses and sent downtown, knowing only that something is very wrong.
The job for some of the police is to help get people out of Tower One. Stone shows uncertainty on the faces of a young group of them as McLoughlin asks for a team of volunteers. And he shows the veteran McLoughlin staying calm and focused when four of them eventually go with him, although it's clear that there's panic in his eyes.
But he and his men only make it to the concourse between Towers One and Two, when the sky starts falling. Watching the film, we are well aware that it's one of those towers collapsing; the would-be rescuers don't have a clue of what's causing the horrific turmoil around them. But as the screen shows radios and televisions telling the world what's going on, Stone focuses on two men who miraculously escaped being crushed by the building but are pinned near each other in the rubble beneath it with no food, water, or outside communication, and only the distant light of the sky letting them know they're about 20 feet down.
It's McLoughlin and one of his team members, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena). And it's through sheer will power that they manage to keep themselves alive -- talking to each other to stay awake, despite the terrible pain, because they know if they fall asleep, they won't wake up.
Soon the film goes inside, to what they're thinking -- to the happy, loving thoughts Jimeno has of his home life, of his pregnant wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal); to the happy thoughts McLoughlin once had of his wife. And the film cuts to the world outside of this devastating prison they're in -- to the homes where their wives and families are waiting for word of their missing husbands.
Stone also shows the inner thoughts of the wives, and sometimes mixes those of the husbands and wives inextricably, hinting that both sides are having the same memory. He cuts to televisions newscasts with reminders that "many of New York's finest have been lost." He shows beaten, ash-covered members of the force returning to headquarters.
And he keeps returning to the slowly fading McLoughlin and Jimeno, where the only sound aside from their voices is the rumbling, creaking and moaning of the ruined building, and where at any moment there could be a shower of falling concrete, dust and fireballs.
The ending is an uplifting one, as this is a story of real people who lived to tell it. Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff regularly refer to what was going on above ground, but they have eschewed the bigger picture and have succeeded in crafting a superb, deeply personal vision of one small aspect of what happened that day.
World Trade Center; Rated PG-13; Directed by Oliver Stone; Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal