Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (rated PG-13 for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language) is bizarre and shocking, but for none of the anticipated reasons. The film can be described using a long list of adjectives never before associated with an Oliver Stone film: sober, inspiring, patriotic, uncynical, rousing, hopeful, sincere-even devout.
While not quite as forceful in impact or elegant in structure as an earlier movie about 9/11, United 93, World Trade Center manages to tell a remarkable, honest story devoid of politics and conspiracy theories. By filming a script written by someone other than himself and based on the true story of Port Authority officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (see "Purpose-driven life"), Stone (pictured) has put aside his personal fixations while putting his filmmaking talent to meaningful and valuable use.
World Trade Center opens on an ordinary morning in New York City-that this is the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, is only known by an onscreen title. Stone follows a small group of New York Port Authority police officers as they go through their normal routine, until a shadow passes overhead and an earth-shaking rumble grabs their attention. Stone signals his restrained, solemn approach early on by avoiding any repetition of the now iconic shots of planes hitting skyscrapers. The suggestion of that event is all that is necessary, and all that Stone allows, to set the story in motion.
A small group of officers volunteers to form a rescue team and to enter the World Trade Center-remember, little is known about what has actually occurred at this point-and barely have time to assemble the necessary gear before the entire group is buried under an enormous mound of rubble from the collapsing building.
The technical aspects of the World Trade Center collapse, seen from the inside, are remarkable from a sound- and special-effects perspective, but what's even more surprising at this point in the film is the real sense that Stone is telling an honest, fact-based story. The Port Authority officers who courageously rush inside the burning building never have the chance to rescue anyone-Stone eschews movieland melodrama for simple, remarkable truth.
Three officers survive the initial collapse: McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage), Jimeno (Michael Peña, from Crash), and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez). The rest of the film intercuts between their fight to stay alive buried under 20 feet of steel and stone, and the agony of their families as wives and children helplessly wait for word from Ground Zero.
The third component to the story follows the rescue workers laboring with near equal agony at their inability to pick through the rubble fast enough in search of survivors. The most interesting (and enigmatic) character here is former Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who believes that God is calling him to travel to Ground Zero to aid in the rescue efforts.
Shannon's portrayal of Karnes borders on crazed at times, but his faith and intentions are never undermined. This is true, too, of the prayers (and even a vision of Jesus) of McLoughlin and Jimeno as they struggle to stay conscious while pinned underground-the movie allows for some humor amidst the intensity, but it never once undercuts their sincerity and meaning.
World Trade Center ends somewhat abruptly, but on a powerful note. Remarkably, while much of the rest of the country has moved on to cynicism or willful ignorance, the profound effects of 9/11 on Hollywood (or at least Hollywood's treatment of the event on film) are only now coming to light.