It was not until years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that any character in any Hollywood movie could even utter the words “Pearl Harbor”. The emotions surrounding the event were still much too raw to be dealt with in popular entertainment. Likewise, Hollywood has taken a long time before beginning to incorporate 9-11 into the movies. In addition to the intense emotions surrounding the event there has also been concern about being accused of making a profit from such a national tragedy. In addition, there is intense disagreement about just what 9-11 meant and what America should do to prevent future attacks of that magnitude. But 2006 has seen two movies about 9-11 released into theaters. First was United 93, and now comes World Trade Center, Oliver Stone’s look at the ordeal of two Port Authority police officers who survived despite being trapped in the rubble.
Given Stone’s past history of making movies that amounted to little more than paranoid political rants, one might enter the theater expecting him to blame the whole thing on Nixon. In fact Stone, who has loudly proclaimed that “This is not a political movie”, for once sticks pretty close to the facts. World Trade Center is a well researched and tightly focused look at a handful of characters caught up in a tragic and terrible event.
As the trapped officers, Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena spend much of the movie immobilized by debris in a hot, dusty, claustrophobic hell. They talk to each other, trying to keep each other’s spirits up and keep each other awake, fearful of losing consciousness because they know they are both bleeding internally. Stone does an excellent job of depicting the men’s plight, and the sheer misery of being trapped without water under the still shifting and burning rubble. The special effects and CGI in this movie are outstanding, and this allows Stone to show both the epic and the personal sides of the tragedy and horror of 9-11. While Cage and Pena endure uncertainty and terror from falling dust and bursts of flame, rescuers above are slowly picking their way through a science fiction landscape of towering wreckage so convincing that it looks as if the movie began shooting right after the planes hit.
One of those rescuers is a Marine Staff Sergeant played by Michael Shannon. Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes headed for Ground Zero immediately after the attack out of a sense of duty and a desire to help any survivors who could be saved. Shannon has considerable screen presence, and dominates every scene he’s in. In a movie that devotes a great deal of attention to trapped victims and grieving families, Shannon has a truly heroic role. Besides showing the audience the real contribution of the real Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes, Stone uses Shannon to symbolize the heroism of hundreds of rescuers who kept going despite the danger and horror that surrounded them. At times it almost seems that Shannon has wandered in from other, different movie. But it is impossible to accurately depict the heroism of the 9-11 rescuers and make it look ordinary, whatever ordinary might mean in such circumstances. It’s to Stone’s credit that he doesn’t try.
Yet when the movie is not focused on Shannon, which is most of the time, it pretty much feels like a movie of the week made for the Lifetime channel, but with a much larger budget. Andrea Berloff’s screenplay spends a lot of time on the families of the trapped men. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello play the grieving, anxious wives, with Gyllenhaal in particular giving a good performance. There are even occasional flashbacks of the men’s family lives before the attack. These are obviously designed more to evoke a feeling of just what 9-11 cost the victims and survivors than to advance the plot. Stone certainly succeeds in evoking feelings, but occasionally at the expense making the movie drag. At times, World Trade Center simply feels like it’s taking too long, especially in the middle third of the movie.
This is not to say that World Trade Center is a bad movie. It’s actually a very good one, and it shows just what Stone can do with his vast cinematic skills when he isn’t making a political screed. Oliver Stone has crafted a well made, elegant, and times moving depiction of 9-11. But United 93 was much better, in part it had what Stone’s movie conspicuously lacks - a depiction of the men who destroyed the Twin Towers and snuffed out thousands of lives in a murderous act of religious fanaticism. There is no explicit political message in World Trade Center. But among the powerful feelings and emotions that Stone so skillfully evokes, righteous anger is nowhere to be found.
World Trade Center ends pretty much as a Lifetime movie of the week ought to end, with an uplifting and hopeful message. “9-11 showed us what humans are capable of”, Cage tells us. “Evil, yeah sure, but also a goodness we forgot could exist...It’s important to talk about that good, to remember, because I saw a lot of it that day.” This is certainly true and well worth remembering. But once in a while we might also want to remember the evil, just in case anyone out there might be thinking of doing something like this again.