Oliver Stone has made a cautious, earnestly factual and emotionally unassailable film about two Port Authority cops, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), who were among the last of the twenty survivors pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center on 9/11. What he has not made is an Oliver Stone movie.
Good news for those opposed to seeing an inspiring true story in the hands of a nut-job conspiracy theorist (JFK, Nixon). But for those of us who recognize the rigorous talent in Stone (Platoon, Salvador) as well as his reckless abuse of it (Natural Born Killers, Alexander), there's little joy in seeing him morph into Ron Howard to play it safe at the box office.
Much has already been made of the fact that Paramount, the studio releasing World Trade Center, has hired Creative Response Concepts to curry favor for the film among conservatives and the Christian right. It seems to be working. Bad boy Stone is earning raves from right-wing pundits who once would have merrily burned him at the stake.
Is Stone going soft to revive his flagging career? Only in the sense that there's no politics in World Trade Center, except for the marketing, and that the trapped cops never curse their fates, and every American on view behaves honorably.
Though Stone has cleaned up his act, there is still a fire in him to italicize the profound significance of this intimate story. In one of the film's rare showoff shots, Stone and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Hours) have the camera rise from the rubble to take in the Manhattan skyline and then up and up till it reaches a satellite beaming the news that will shake the world.
Still, it's in the smaller moments that the film shines. Stone's focus on the men in the rubble is characteristically intense. And the actors perform beyond the call of duty. Cage is riveting and resonant as Sgt. McLoughlin , a veteran cop who has spent a dozen years patrolling the towers, though nothing, not even the 1993 bombing, has prepped him for this. He and his team of four volunteers, including Jimeno — Pena delivers on his breakthrough in Crash with a performance of grit and grace — are there to help. But how?
e question becomes moot when both are trapped under an avalanche of concrete and steel, barely able to move in a confined space. Lesser actors would be daunted by the task of conveying emotional nuance in the dark, immobile and covered with ash. But Cage and Pena rise to the challenge as McLoughlin and Jimeno keep themselves awake — sleep could lead to coma and death — by trading stories even as the hope of rescue fades. Jimeno, who has visions of Jesus, tells of wanting to be a cop since he was a kid watching Starsky and Hutch on the tube. Later, both men hum the show's jaunty theme to break the tension. The telling details — McLoughlin's tardiness in building a kitchen for his wife, Donna (a quietly devastating Maria Bello), Jimeno arguing about baby names with his pregnant wife, Allison (a tightly wound Maggie Gyllenhaal) — become a lifeline. Stone cuts from the men to their families at home, waiting for news, any news.
This material could have played like a by-the-numbers docudrama. But the script, by newcomer Andrea Berloff, who worked with both couples to get the details right, has the sting of reality to work against any sugarcoating. For the rescue (the set was built in Playa Vista, California), Stone used medics and firefighters who were actually on the scene.
Among the actors, Stephen Dorff scores as EMS officer Scott Strauss. And Michael Shannon is indelible in the incredible role of Staff Sgt. David Karnes, a former Marine who quits his accounting job on a call from God to head for Ground Zero. If Stone overdoes the rah-rah, it's hard to blame him. The film is a salute to heroes who could have easily walked away. Unlike Paul Greengrass' piercing United 93, which detailed the events of 9/11 with potent provocation, World Trade Center takes the point of view of two men with no clear idea of what's going on. "What happened to the buildings?" asks Jimeno when his rescuers lift him out of the hole. The deeper implications of those words raise hot-button issues that Stone has tabled for now. His film is undeniably affecting, but you leave it wanting more.