Release Date:  August 9, 2006
Rating:  PG-13 (for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  125 min.
Director:  Oliver Stone
Actors:  Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon

Immediately following September 11, 2001, it was difficult to imagine how filmmakers might render the event in years to come. Would they bring their own agendas to the films or let the historic events largely speak for themselves? Would they politicize the day? Would the films be as traumatic an experience as that day itself was? And if so, would we want to sit through them?

The answers, as the fifth anniversary of September 11 approaches, are clearer now – and tremendously gratifying. Although it has been used as grist for the political mill (Michael Moore’s muddled "Fahrenheit 9/11"), that tragic day has been brought to vivid, horrifying life in three films that manage, through the carnage, to inspire. First was the documentary "9/11," aired on CBS and comprised of footage from two French filmmakers who were in Manhattan on that day. Then, earlier this year, director Paul Greengrass’ superb "United 93" told a straight-ahead story of the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, brought down by terrorists who were nearly overcome by passengers united in their efforts to keep the plane from reaching its intended target. Now, director Oliver Stone delivers "World Trade Center," one of the most uplifting tales to emerge from that day. It’s a survivors’ story, full of hope and the belief that God and family can sustain us in the most dire of circumstances.

The themes are traditional but the setting is extraordinary, as two men, trapped in the rubble of the Twin Towers, fight to stay alive until they can be rescued. Those men, Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), are Port Authority police officers called to the World Trade Center after the first plane hits the Twin Towers (reports of the second plane reach the workers en route). On the ground floor McLoughlin asks who, among his team, is willing to go up into the building. Only a few respond, but before they can ascend to the floors above, the first building collapses on them and the screen goes dark.

It’s a spectacular scene, and we hold our breath until, in the darkness, McLoughlin opens his eyes, somehow, amazingly, alive, as are two of his team members. Those numbers are soon to be reduced in agonizing, heartbreaking fashion, leaving McLoughlin and Jimeno to wait and hope.

The long sequences depicting the plight of the two officers – pinned down under tons of metal, with only the faintest sign of daylight visible – are claustrophobic, and, at times, terrifying, as the men are helpless to defend themselves against a number of unexpected occurrences that further threaten their lives.

"World Trade Center" will return several times to the trapped men and the harrowing scenarios that could potentially snuff out their lives, but Stone’s tale is more about what’s happening above the rubble than within it. The director – working from a script by Andrea Berloff, based on the recollections of McLoughlin, Jimeno and their spouses – tells this heroic tale largely through the eyes of the rescuers and the families left in limbo as they wait to learn more details.

The camera rises through the wreckage and settles into the homes of the two missing officers, where their wives and children wait for word on their whereabouts. Early uncertainty gives way to devastating reality – the men are missing – but with the fate of the two men unconfirmed, a glimmer of hope remains throughout their ordeal. Jimeno’s pregnant wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), surrounds herself with family members, but faces the grim possibility that her husband won’t be returning. McLoughlin’s wife, Donna (Maria Bello), fears the worst while trying to manage the take-action attitude of her teenage son.

These characterizations propel the film into something much richer than it might otherwise have been. It’s an American story about pulling together, helping each other through a crisis and, crucially, responding to a divine sense of calling – both vocationally and through immediate experience – even at the risk of our own lives. Central to the story is a former Marine (Michael Shannon), who, feeling a call by God, gets his hair cut, suits up in his fatigues, and heads to Ground Zero, determined to find survivors among the men who were trying to do their duty on that horrifying day.

Cage makes the most of a performance that consists of static shots of his pained visage. Even while trapped, he’s a team leader, encouraging his fellow officer to stay awake, to stay alive. But when prospects of McLoughlin’s survival dim further, it’s Pena who carries the film, with crucial support from Shannon.

Stone has shown admirable restraint in the visual presentation of the material here. Unlike the compelling but disorienting imagery of most of his films since "JFK", "World Trade Center" has a clean, straightforward visual grace, propelled by the cinematography of Seamus McGarvey. A stirring score from Craig Armstrong subtly but beautifully complements the imagery.

It’s a total package that honors a wounded nation and the spirit of its diverse people. Like the actions of so many on that day, and in the days that followed, "World Trade Center" is something to be proud of.

AUDIENCE:  Teens and up

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Heavy profanity; Lord’s name taken in vain.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  None.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None.
  • Violence:  Some gunfire; threatening fires. A wounded officer appears ready to commit suicide, but does not follow through.
  • Religion:  A vision of Jesus; a man says he feels an immediate call of God to help the recovery efforts.