The rumblings began before Oliver Stone shot the first frame of film on World Trade Center, a movie based on events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001. "It's too soon." "We're not ready." "This is not something to be exploited."
Now, just shy of five years after the tragic events of 9/11, Stone's film has arrived, and the proclamations of "too soon" and "not ready" have gone from bold statements to burning questions: Is it too soon? Are we ready?
When you look at all the ways 9/11 has affected the lives of every living creature on the planet, the questions of timeliness and preparedness become irrelevant. Moments after the planes slammed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the exploitation of 9/11 began. Television networks, newspapers, magazines and websites began the frenzied scramble to have the most up-to-date exclusive news, and therefore the biggest market share. In the days and weeks and months following 9/11, the attacks were used as a marketing tool for military recruiting, a precursor to war, justification for the suspension of civil liberties, and a catch-all excuse for anything and everything from rising gas prices to an already faltering economy. When you really look at all the ways 9/11 has been used to sell everything from flags and commemorative coins to wholesale bombing and the invasion of privacy, one film is no big thing. Hell, a sitcom based on 9/11 couldn't be more tasteless than the vulture-like vendors peddling T-shirts to misty-eyed tourists mumbling "God bless America" at Ground Zero. Now is the time, and we have been ready.
The most important thing to know going in to World Trade Center is that it's a lot less like an Oliver Stone movie than you might imagine. Known as a left-leaning, conspiracy-minded filmmaker, Stone has become a director whose reputation overshadows his work. Recent films like Any Given Sunday and Alexander were disappointments. Natural Born Killers was the overhyped attempt of an aging filmmaker trying to seem young and relevant. But then there are his earlier films. Salvador is really good, Wall Street is great, and Platoon, well, that's pure brilliance. And now there is World Trade Center, a different sort of film for Stone, but one that shines with elements of goodness, if not greatness.
World Trade Center starts early in the morning on Sept. 11 as Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), two cops with the Port Authority Police Department, prepare for what promises to be another routine day. But things quickly take a turn when a plane crashes into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. McLoughlin and Jimeno are part of a team of first responders who race to the scene. As they attempt to navigate the streets of New York, the PAPD cops try to figure out what is going on. Unconfirmed reports of a plane hitting the second tower start spreading. At the World Trade Center, chaos runs rampant. Smoke and debris are everywhere. Trapped office workers leap from windows 100 stories up. The world is coming to a screaming end. McLoughlin takes four other cops, including Jimeno, into the trade center to help with the evacuation. And then the first tower collapses.
Inspired by the true story of McLoughlin and Jimeno, two of the 20 survivors pulled from the devastating destruction of the twin towers, World Trade Center is more a tale of survival than any sort of political posturing. This could just as easily be about trapped miners in the 1800s after a cave-in at a West Virginia coal mine, and at times, that's all the film really is. This is, after all, a film about 9/11 before 9/11 became what it was. McLoughlin and Jimeno knew nothing about al-Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden, or United 93. All they knew was that they were trapped, with little hope of survival. And that is the same approach Stone takes with the film.
World Trade Center is a good yet uneven film that works best during its first act. There is an eerie sense of dread during the early part of the film, as we know what is going to happen, and all we can do is wait for the inevitable tragedy. During this part of the movie, Stone approaches the level of brilliance he achieved in Platoon. During the second act, however, the director falls back on the melodramatic subplot of the worrying families of McLoughlin and Jimeno, as well as unnecessary flashbacks. Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are an integral part of this story. But Stone's directorial hand is less assured here, and it's during the second act of World Trade Center that the film goes from being the solid work you might expect from Stone to something more like you'd expect from Ron Howard. And like Howard's Apollo 13, World Trade Center becomes hampered by the simple fact that we know how this tale will end.
Despite the obvious moments that are less effective, World Trade Center delivers an emotional cinematic experience. Even the weaker scenes with the wives are offset by one of the film's most powerful moments, as Donna McLoughlin bonds with a mother desperately awaiting the news of her missing son. This brief moment comes closest to conveying the fear, desperation and uncertainty we all felt that day. And though we know the ultimate fate of McLoughlin and Jimeno, the elation that comes in the third act when they are discovered, and the sense of hope that spreads for an outcome we're already aware of, is infectious. As rescue workers struggle to free Jimeno, pinned under a slab of concrete, and he commands them to amputate his leg so they don't have to waste any more time getting to the quickly fading McLoughlin, it is hard to not be moved to tears. Not only is this cinematic heroism at its finest—conveyed by Peña in a performance that steals the film—this is humanity at its finest.
World Trade Center is not the first film to grapple directly with 9/11—United 93 did that earlier this year—and it certainly won't be the last; only time will tell if it is the best, the worst or something in between. But right here, right now, it is a film that serves its purpose. Just as Stone's Platoon helped usher in a new era of war films that took a more reflective, introspective look at Vietnam, World Trade Center holds the promise of ushering in a cinematic healing process that will help soothe the wounds of 9/11. Stone has wisely left behind the politics and shadow conspiracies, and focused on the more important emotional matters at hand. There will be plenty of time for other filmmakers to explore and exploit various aspects of 9/11. But it must begin somewhere, and World Trade Center is as good a place as any.
Opens Wednesday, Aug. 9. See screen listings, page 99, for theaters.