Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center lands this week—its title as emphatic and its subject as world-historical as any movie since Stone weighed in with JFK. The surprising thing about this commission job, directed from Andrea Berloff’s script, is not its factuality but its restraint.
Master of the sledgehammer, Stone spent millions of Paramount dollars re-creating the post-9/11 “pile” on a backlot Ground Zero. Still, World Trade Center’s most impressive effect is its delicate editing. The epoch-defining disaster is rendered in shorthand—the shadow of a plane, the thud of the impact—and largely mediated by TV. For the most part, Stone favors discreet cutaways and meaningful blackouts. He’s a good soldier.
So are his protagonists. Twenty years a Port Authority cop, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) rises at 3:29 a.m., squeezes past sleeping wife Donna (Maria Bello), checks their slumbering brood, and heads to work, the car radio providentially blasting “sun comin’ up on New York City.” As he arrives at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, younger officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña)—soon his buddy in horror—threads through the heedless crowd of Ratso Rizzos and Travis Bickles. Their daily briefing has a military quality; when news arrives that a plane has struck the WTC, John and company head for the war zone. It’s their duty: “We’re going downtown.”
The ghastly doomsday vision is slightly sweetened with computer-generated imagery. Only one person is glimpsed leaping from 90 stories up. In the most startling image, John and Will—who have volunteered to evacuate trapped office workers—watch the collapse of the second tower from the lobby of the still-standing first one, a roiling tidal wave of ash and debris. As befits a new-style disaster film, spectacle is subsumed in subjective experience—in this case, being buried alive.
Pinned beneath 20 feet of rubble, the two cops might be coal miners in a caved-in shaft. (Cage’s character is physically constrained; like his director, the actor is effectively subdued.) But World Trade Center draws heavily on Stone’s wartime experience—as well as Hollywood war-movie conventions. The guys cite G.I. Jane: “Pain is your friend.” Not just the WTC but battlefield and home front have collapsed. These casualties are devoted family men who share their situation with wives waiting at home for a uniformed messenger of death. Bello is a study in controlled anguish while Maggie Gyllenhaal’s pregnant Allison Jimeno is all elbows, rushing headlong in and out of her New Jersey frame house.
Stone has dutifully repeated his studio-given mantra that World Trade Center is “not a political movie.” (As if that were possible: even the musical cues suggest the mawkish piano doodling that’s been a campaign-ad staple since Reagan ran for reelection.) But once Stone uncorks a virtual crane shot up from the pile to a communications satellite and then the Whole World Watching, a context unavoidably appears. The first responder is a heroic George Bush, followed by a Sheboygan police officer excoriating the “bastards,” and then another guy exclaiming, “This country’s at war!” Somewhere in Connecticut, an ex-Marine who likes to be called Staff Sergeant (Michael Shannon) gets the heavenly call and marches to the rescue: “God made a curtain with the smoke to shield us from what we’re not yet ready to see,” he says as he approaches the pile.
What hath Oliver wrought? For the hard right, Stone is the most hated “Hollywood liberal” post-Jane Fonda and pre-Michael Moore. But World Trade Center is Stone’s rehabilitation. It’s not just courage that’s honored, it’s God’s Will. It isn’t only men who are saved, it’s their families—and their family values. Raised from the dead, John pays Donna the ultimate tribute: “You kept me alive.”
The key to converting disaster into entertainment is uplift. You may not be convinced by the various visions and voices suggesting divine intervention—Stone doesn’t seem to have been—but then World Trade Center obeys a more crucial show-business commandment. By focusing on two of the 20 people pulled alive from the pile that crushed some 2,700, the movie employs the Schindler’s List strategy: spectators can invest their emotions in the handful of individuals miraculously chosen to survive the disaster rather than the overwhelming anonymous multitude who perished.
“It brought out the goodness,” a self-important summarizing voiceover concludes. It is inspiring that John and Will headed into the WTC; it is heartwarming that Staff Sergeant felt compelled to search for them. Last seen, he’s looking ahead to his next mission: “They’re going to need someone out there to avenge this.” Is it possible to conceive of 9/11 as anything other than the narrative put forth by George W. Bush? Stone’s end title notes that Staff Sergeant subsequently served two tours in Iraq. Who will extricate our brave soldiers from the rubble of that disaster?