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There are no bad dads in Oliver Stone’s new movie. No prophetic shamans, no wild-eyed berserkers, no sultry temptresses, and no icy conspirators. This is a tale of solid family men and devoted wives, the sort of people the director had previously not merely ignored but also seemed to doubt existed. Once a specialist in the confrontational American “countermyth”—his term for 1991’s JFK—Stone here carefully follows the official line. World Trade Center is 9/11’s heroic fable as dictated by Rudy Giuliani.
Although the title suggests a comprehensive account, World Trade Center quickly narrows its focus to two men plus their families. The film opens with a veteran Port Authority policeman’s pre-dawn preparations for work, followed by establishing shots of Manhattan that withhold a view of the twin towers for a few coy seconds. The first cop to be introduced is Sgt. John McLoughlin (an unusually muted Nicolas Cage); he and a few other central characters are working Midtown’s Port Authority Bus Terminal when the shadow of a low-flying jetliner whooshes by, followed by an explosion. As in United 93, the best information comes from CNN rather than official channels. Not entirely sure what’s happening, John commandeers a bus and a handful of officers and heads downtown. They’re going in, even though the sergeant allows that “there is no plan.”
Almost as soon as the policemen grab the requisite gear, one of the towers starts to collapse. John orders his men to the relative safety of the elevator core, where they’re buried—some alive, some dead. After the second tower falls, John and Colombian-born rookie Will Jimeno (an earnest Michael Peña) are alone under several stories of rubble. The sergeant tells the younger man that they can’t go unconscious, or they’ll never survive. So they talk, pray, sing, and swap accounts of their hallucinations.
With John and Will pinned in place by rubble, this could have been the setup for the real-life equivalent of a Samuel Beckett play. Like the characters in such Beckett pieces as Play, the two men are essentially immobile, and their plight is decidedly existential; for most of the film, Cage can move only his mouth and eyes. But Stone, who spattered the screen with avant-garde techniques in Natural Born Killers, here pursues an utterly traditional style. Rather than force the audience into unbroken claustrophobic proximity with the trapped cops, the director cuts away from them as much as possible. After 40 minutes, the movie switches to Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), pregnant with the couple’s second child, and then to Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello), who’s managing a brood of four. Seen both in parallel-time action and flashbacks that don’t reveal anything we couldn’t have reasonably assumed, Allison and Donna—and Gyllenhaal and Bello’s performances—are as central as John and Will.
In fact, the two real-life couples are the film’s working-class muses. Their reminiscences form the basis of Andrea Berloff’s script, and their names are prominent in the credits. World Trade Center wants nothing more than to be faithful to the four people’s stories, whether that means following the queasy Allison into the bathroom to vomit or watching a spectral Jesus appear to the parched Will, proffering a bottle of water. Many such moments are clichéd or sentimental, yet Berloff and Stone don’t flinch. They even indulge an ongoing bit in which Will and Allison independently decide to select the name the other prefers for their unborn daughter. Just because it plays like ’50s Hollywood hokum doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
If World Trade Center is not a minimalist film, neither does it attempt to out-pulverize fictional Hollywood blockbusters in which alien invaders or natural disasters destroy huge chunks of urban real estate. There’s one flashy shot where the camera ascends from John and Will’s caved-in grotto all the way to a satellite broadcasting news of the attack, which leads to a montage of international bulletins. Most of the action, however, is under and around the pile of rubble or in the modest homes where Donna, Allison, and their extended families react to the limited information they receive on John and Will’s fate. It would be difficult to compete with the abundant video images of the WTC attacks that nearly everyone has already seen. Yet it doesn’t seem that Stone is merely being practical. He’s also intentionally demonstrating a quality that’s always been lacking in his work: restraint. Even Craig Armstrong’s score, which offers the standard faux-classical elegies, is agreeably short on bombast and piped in at an unusually discreet volume.
Politically, Stone displays a different sort of moderation by accepting the official narrative of the twin-towers horror, which was quickly written by Giuliani and his allies and has seldom been challenged in the mainstream media. It’s a story of bravery, self-sacrifice, and unquestioning public service by the police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians who showed how a devastating assault—as Cage’s final voice-over puts it—“brought out the goodness” in people. This is true, as far as it goes, but it’s also a deliberate distraction from the failures of the bosses and the supposed experts. The “first responders” script downplays or ignores the U.S. government’s lack of preparation for such a terrorist strike, as well as New York City and the Port Authority’s recklessness in building and operating two high-rise towers that were certain deathtraps in the case of a major emergency. If Oliver Stone can’t raise such issues, what big-budget filmmaker can?
Of course, Stone comes to this project no longer the swaggering bad boy whose box-office receipts keep detractors at bay. He hasn’t had a big hit in years, and his last cinematic meltdown, Alexander, was justifiably savaged. So perhaps it was inevitable that the director, after making a string of films in which male bonding is a potent but often destructive and unmanageable force, would seek out a story in which men join together in a tidy quest for redemption. While Stone refrains from embellishing his film with any religious imagery that doesn’t come directly from John and Will, this is nonetheless a parable of men who are buried in a cave and then reborn—a mystical scenario that was ancient when the Christians borrowed it for the story of their messiah’s resurrection.
For John and Will, salvation comes as much from thoughts of their wives as from the former’s Lord’s Prayer or the latter’s vision of a Latino-style Jesus. Up above, however, two supporting characters also seek psychic renewal: Ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), previously at loose ends, pulls on his uniform and uses it to get access to the still-burning site; he’s the first to deduce that John and Will are alive beneath the wreckage. As an ad hoc team assembles to rescue the men, Karnes is joined by paramedic Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley, guitarist Robby Krieger in Stone’s The Doors), who promptly explains that he’s just found himself after years of substance abuse. World Trade Center doesn’t stint on devastation, but ultimately it depicts the towers’ smoking remains as a place where souls are reclaimed. And thus, by implication, where a director’s shattered career can also be reborn.CP