There's a perfectly good reason why disaster movies focus on just a handful of characters. It's a way of injecting intimate personal drama into a tragedy whose enormity is so great and whose circumstances so unusual we wouldn't otherwise relate to the casualty numbers as real people, real lives.
Director Oliver Stone, working with writer Andrea Berloff, takes that intimate approach in World Trade Center, which is based on the true story of Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who were trapped in an elevator shaft after a tower collapsed on 9/11.
Stone does a somberly realistic, disciplined job, technically accomplished with peak moments of brilliance. It's also a surprisingly apolitical and restrained film, given Stone's predilection for inserting weird conspiracy theories and eccentric narrative twists into otherwise historical dramas (JFK and Nixon). He rises to the challenge here to not make his views — whatever they are — the point of the film. As a result, a filmmaking iconoclast has turned into a statesman.
But there's a problem with this approach, however well realized. We as a nation — and probably much of the world — don't need to have 9/11 made personal for us. The 2,749 people who died on that day at the World Trade Center site, when Islamic militants flew two hijacked planes into the tower, are not just statistics to us.
Not yet, anyway, not after just five years. (Militants also hijacked and crashed two other planes, one into the Pentagon.) Those victims are us. We feel every death vividly. We take each one personally.
Thus this film's approach inevitably reduces the impact of the attack rather than heightening it. It turns it into something — dare I say it — conventional, movie-wise: two injured men trapped in a cave-in, trying to survive while rescuers search and family members at home worry and bicker among themselves.
As this story arc plays out with a few flashbacks and much crosscutting, it's easy to get lulled by its familiarity despite the restrained and unglamorous acting by Cage and Pena and Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal as their respective wives.
It's possible this movie was green-lighted by Paramount Pictures because it is, essentially, about heroism. But Stone isn't quite buying that take on things. He does spend time presenting this story from the rescuers' eyes, but those scenes are as spooky as they are inspiring. And he treats his shots of the twisted steel at the surface of Ground Zero as if it's a sacred war memorial, too sacred for Hollywood melodrama.
Primarily he and his fine cinematographer Seamus McGarvey concentrate on the darkness of the rubble in which the two officers, often shown in close-up, are trapped. It's portrayed as a claustrophobic entombment, and the rumbles and creaks and snaps of the collapsing debris sound like the world as we know it ending. There's even a hurtling fireball or two.
This is apocalypse now. It's also a place for death's-head religious visions, where Jimeno imagines Jesus before him carrying a water bottle.
Yet two of the most memorable scenes are those that transcend the story's particulars. In one hauntingly poetic moment that plays like melancholy Spielberg, pregnant Allison Jimeno (Gyllenhaal) goes out into her deserted suburban street at night, the lights of television sets broadcasting the news shining through all the living rooms. In the other, after the officers become trapped in the debris, Stone pulls back to consider what happened from a higher and higher vantage point — a space satellite, even. It reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Never previously shy of graphic depictions of violence in movies like Platoon, Natural Born Killers and U Turn, Stone this time uses only power of suggestion to show the actual attack. The build-up is crisp and quick, as short scenes of New York life on that morning — the twin towers sometimes evident in the distance — pass by like floating clouds, accompanied by Craig Armstrong's ominous score. The attack itself is but a shadow, a muffled boom, a cop looking up, a television report.
Cage's and Pena's characters are not portrayed as gung-ho types. There's fear on their faces — and on those of their cohorts — as they initially arrive by busload at the damaged but standing World Trade Center for rescue operations and tosee what's happening. A body falls from a tower; just one, but it's jolting. The sky is turning gray.
There's an extremely odd character in World Trade Center, one also based on true events even though he seems out of a Stone movie. As played by Michael Shannon, retired Marine Dave Karnes is tall, gaunt and almost sinister — he's like a stalker. Living in Connecticut as an accountant, he puts on his uniform after the attack because he realizes this is war, gets a haircut and goes down to help with rescue operations. Hooking up with a Marine Sergeant Thomas (William Mapother), they prowl like ghosts calling out for survivors.
In an article for Slate, Rebecca Liss called the actual Karnes "crazy brave," and Stone captures that creepy quality. When Karnes says he's going to re-enlist because "they're going to need some good men out there to avenge this" — the closest thing to a political statement in the film — the effect is more foreboding than rousing. Maybe that's as it should be, considering what's come since 9/11.
Within the confines of a movie about "courage and survival," as Paramount is promoting World Trade Center, Stone has made a film that's a requiem, with a modestly optimistic ending. We're probably not ready for more than that yet. I'm not sure we're ready yet to see 9/11 through the eyes of characters in a Hollywood drama, rather than through our own.
Certainly we weren't ready for United 93 earlier this year. But Stone has handled his material with respect. Grade: B