Oliver Stone’s films often express alternative theories of reality. In JFK he explored the vast conspiracy theory that has sprung up around the assassination of John Kennedy. His takes on Alexander the Great, Jim Morrison and Richard Nixon were all as contentious as the subjects were diverse. Stone almost never plays it safe but in World Trade Center he has put aside the provocative material he is best known for and made his most straightforward film in years. Focusing on the plight of two 9/11 first responders and their families Stone has made a film about a difficult subject that offers hope instead of controversy.
The power of the best Stone films is very much on display here—unforgettable images include the shadow of the plane that crashed into the first tower and the resulting twisted wreckage of the building—without the self-indulgent tendencies that mar his less interesting work.
Stone hones the story down to two men, Sergeant John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two Port Authority workers who were trapped under tons of rubble when the second World Trade Center tower collapsed on them as they prepared to evacuate people from the devastation. He focuses on their struggle to stay alive and their hope that they will be rescued. Above ground Stone cuts to the families of McLoughlin and Jimeno and their search to uncover information about their loved ones.
It’s a very effective way of dramatizing the events of 9/11. By narrowing the scope of the story down to two families the viewer gets an up-close and personal look at the tragedy of the day. From afar the story is too large, the kind of evil that caused the destruction too hard to understand but we can understand the tears of a wife who doesn’t know if she is a widow or not or a long hug between two people wracked by grief. Stone handles these moments gently.
Not so gentle is the actual event itself—the felling of the towers. Stone puts us inside a collapsing building and it is harrowing. The mournful wailing of the twisting metal, the giant chunks of cement and the black billowing smoke make it seem like hell on earth. We all saw it on television on the day, now Stone has placed us inside the building and it is harrowing.
The two men trapped men are helpless and must survive on the hope that the ray of light they can see far above them is a lifeline. Otherwise all is lost. Despite acting with only their faces—the rest of their bodies are trapped under rubble for most of the film—Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena hand in multi-layered performances. As they talk to one another, keeping one another company in their underground hell, we learn what makes them tick. What could have been tedious, claustrophobic scenes of the two men pinned by giant slabs of rock become strangely uplifting as they talk about their families and their lives in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Stone, through his actors chooses to celebrate the human spirit and the ties that bind, not the ideology of separation. By excluding any mention of al-Queda Stone shows that his movie has no political agenda. It is simply a movie about people rising above a dreadful situation.
World Trade Center isn’t the final word on 9/11. As the defining event of a generation filmmakers will revisit this story many times, many different ways, and while the film reveals little about the event it portrays, it speaks volumes about the people it affected.