In `World Trade Center,' Oliver Stone creates a touching tribute to those who did their duty on 9/11
People mourn in different ways. Some lock their hearts in a box and nurse their grief in private; others head to the nearest public square to rend their garments. So, too, with 9/11 movies: Some, like this spring's ``United 93," distrust the urge to mythify and replay the tragedy with blunt fidelity. Others seek comfort in commemoration, looking for stray moments of indomitability and building emotional statuary to the fallen.
``World Trade Center" builds a memorial to the risen, actually -- two New York Port Authority cops who survived being buried for nearly 24 hours under the rubble of Tower Two. If that seems unduly rosy in the face of the 2,759 people who didn't make it, the movie has the grace to suggest we need those few who return carrying the tale. Honoring them only sharpens our grief for the others.
Oliver Stone has made an honorable film, in other words, and almost the best thing I can say about it is that it doesn't feel like an Oliver Stone movie. There are no conspiracies here, no pointing of fingers beyond a slow-rising anger at the perpetrators. ``World Trade Center" is big and it's sentimental, and it thankfully resists the urge to fetishize the images that have been horribly familiar for nearly five years now. The film rarely goes wide to take in the larger picture; it sees the cataclysm quite literally from ground zero. In so doing it puts human faces on the hundreds of rescue workers who perished, paying tribute to both their averageness and their astounding resolve.
Well, all right, one of those faces belongs to Nicolas Cage, movie star. As if shying from the spotlight, though, the actor plays Sergeant John McLoughlin with minimal show. Cage is rail-thin here, hiding behind a mustache, a uniform, and the sort of competence that doesn't have to assert itself. When first word of the disaster comes to the Port Authority midtown command post, McLoughlin simply saddles up and asks for volunteers to come with him, and his worth can be gauged by the disappointment of those who aren't chosen.
Four PA cops head downtown with him, and the magnitude of what's going on grows with every block. Yet the officers are too busy parsing rumor and responding to immediate problems to step back. ``World Trade Center" relegates9/11 iconography to the background: The ash-covered businessmen and bloodied office workers are glimpsed fleetingly, and the film never stops to identify the source of the periodic crashing noises that startle the police and firemen. (After a while we understand they're the sound made by falling human bodies.) Stone and writer Andrea Berloff turn the movie into a testament to professionalism, and only then do they wonder where professionalism ends and panic begins.
With the collapse of Tower Two, ``World Trade Center" becomes a survival film, the sort of true-life saga that might make a decent TV movie if the surrounding event weren't burned into our collective psyche. The men of McLoughlin's team are pinned under concrete blocks that shift with dreadful, impersonal unpredictability. One of the cops does something that looks like suicide; whether Stone muffs the scene or he's protecting the man's memory isn't clear.
Finally it comes down to a handful of officers immobilized in darkness, choking out banalities to keep each other alive. McLoughlin and the others are free from the neck up; it's as if they'd gone to work and found themselves in a Beckett play. In this hell, the audience and the other men come to rely on Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), whose spirit seems uncrushable; Pena, one of the faces in the crowd of last year's ``Crash," gives a performance for which year-end awards seem petty.
Above ground, Stone now switches his focus to the families. Maria Bello as Donna McLoughlin and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jimeno's pregnant wife, Allison, play their parts with weary grit and distress signals only we and their children can see. What sentimentality the movie doles out is reserved for the flashbacks the men use to keep themselves from faltering. Perhaps two scenes featuring a glowing Jesus is one too many, but if that's what helped the real Will Jimeno stay alive, then we're almost beyond criticism here. (Anyway, Stone has always been a director who scoffs at the notion of restraint; that's his strength and his big old Achilles ' heel.)
The movie also spotlights those who plunged into the wreckage to find the fallen officers: Emergency Service Unit officer Scott Strauss (an unrecognizable Stephen Dorff), and paramedic Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley, making his character a touchingly uncertain man who rises to the occasion). The most startling character is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a devout accountant and ex-Marine who the moment he saw the news reports walked out of his office , put on his military uniform, and proceeded to ground zero to do what he could. In the scarily intense Karnes we see a righteous thirst for vengeance co exist with a tenderness almost beyond measure; Stone reminds the viewer of how the destruction of the towers fused hot, contradictory emotions in us all.
``World Trade Center" proudly samples patriotism among its other core emotions; to do otherwise would be to play the day false. If you want a 9/11 drama that engages the political underpinnings of the event -- what led up to the attacks, what ensued -- you should find another movie.
Call this playing it safe or focusing on the things that matter, the result is that Stone has made a less rigorous, more comforting film than Paul Greengrass's monumental ``United 93." ``World Trade Center" barely references terrorism and acknowledges the rest of the world only through shots of horror-struck crowds in foreign countries (it's as though they're watching the latest, most realistic Hollywood blockbuster). Stone and Berloff stick to the day's damage and resilience, and their faith in the innate goodness of average Americans is as genuinely touching as it is soothing.
And if part of your brain wonders why we can't process a catastrophe like this until it has been turned into a Hollywood movie, or why we sift an unimaginably horrific day for the few pinpoints of good news, feel free to follow such thoughts wherever they may lead you. One reason ``World Trade Center" is such a good, healing cry is that it absolves us of the discomfort of thinking about everything that has happened since.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.