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World Trade Center

A TV Movie of the Week with a High Budget

Overwrought, overemphatic, manipulative and, yes, propagandistic are all words that could (and should be used) to describe Oliver Stone's (Alexander, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Platoon) “based on true events” film about the efforts to save two Port Authority police officers from certain death on 9/11, World Trade Center. Other critics will use vague, unhelpful words like "profound", “uplifting”, or "moving" to describe the movie. Stone doesn’t; far from it.

It's partly the fault of the simplistic, TV movie-of-the-week material, but it's also partly (or is it mostly?) a result of Stone's proclivity for underlining and overemphasizing every story beat through music cues, slow motion, and, just in case we weren’t paying attention for the first two hours, voice-over narration about human nature.

John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), a sergeant with the New York City Port Authority, wakes up to another workday. Sunrise is still a while away, but McLoughlin has a long commute into the city. So do Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez), and Antonio Rodrigues (Armando Riesco), fellow officers with the Port Authority. But today isn’t an ordinary day. It’s September 11, 2001, less than an hour before the hijacked commercial airliners attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Within minutes of the terrorist attacks, McLoughlin and his men race to the scene to join the other police, firemen, and rescue crews.

McLoughlin takes Jimeno, Pezzulo, and Rodrigues with him into the World Trade Center on an attempt to rescue any survivors. The buildings collapse. Acting quickly, McLoughlin leads the men into the most protected area in the lobby, the elevator shaft. As the dust clears, McLoughlin and Jimeno find themselves buried under piles of rubble. McLoughlin and Jimeno struggle to keep awake and alert while they wait hopefully for rescue. Above ground, New Yorkers also struggle with the overwhelming news of the morning’s events. John’s wife, Donna (Maria Bello), and Will’s pregnant wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and their respective families wait anxiously for news, any news, good or bad, about John and Will.

World Trade Center has a few things going for it. First up, a convincing depiction of lower Manhattan before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that only a generous production budget can buy. Stone and his screenwriter, Andrea Berloff, should be commended for not showing the jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center towers (we get plenty of CGI-aided and archival footage of the aftermath though). Anything more would have been blatantly exploitative. For a director who’s built a career around an in-your-face filmmaking style (e.g., fast cuts, whip pans, constant zooms, off kilter compositions, and mixed film stocks) often disconnected to story or substance, Stone defers to a more serene style in World Trade Center, holding shots longer and keeping his camera steadier than at any time in the last twelve years.

To prove his patriotic bona fides to conservative critics and red state moviegoers, Stone highlights the contributions of a gung-ho, religious, nationalistic, staff sergeant, Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who seeks spiritual counsel in a church hours after the terrorist attacks from his pastor, then saunters into Ground Zero just hours later on a search-and-rescue mission. Karnes ends up being one of the men who save McLoughlin and Jimeno, but did the Karnes character have to utter a line about getting payback? He didn’t, especially since Stone and his producers include title cards to remind moviegoers (as if anyone needs reminding) of the men and women who died on 9/11 and the first responders who perished trying to save them. Then there’s Stone’s head-scratching decision to have his actors speak with heavy New York accents. Some actors (e.g., Cage, Peña) fare better than others (e.g., Maria Bello), but all of them seem more concerned with getting their lines right than in giving credible performances.

On another level, what deeper message are moviegoers supposed to get out of World Trade Center? That, amid the destruction and rubble created by a terrorist act five years ago, men and women risked their lives to save each other? The seemingly endless procession of television and newspaper reports had already meticulously and exhaustively detailed the events that preceded or followed 9/11, including the heroic acts by New York's finest (note that no irony or derision is meant by this statement). We know this story.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars