Five years later, the rawness of the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, has never gone away. Thinking back to that day, our memories still swirl around media images of frenzy, of the chaos of destruction: the planes crashing, with nightmare force, into the World Trade Center; the sickening, ash-spew implosion of the twin towers; the people in the street scurrying through clogs of smoke and debris, their heads turned back as they flee the madness. Early on, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center conjures some of that nearly unabsorbable terror and shock (a body falls from one tower), and it adds a dread-soaked image that most of us have probably imagined but never seen, even as a reenactment. In the concourse between the North and South Towers, a crew of policemen stand, frozen, as the South Tower begins to collapse. They have no idea what’s happening, but it seems like the end of the world, as what looks like a black tornado shoots in from the windows and they run for the cover of the elevator shaft and then…nothing.
Moments later, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), the Port Authority police sergeant who is leading the crew of first responders, and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), one of his men, wake up in the darkness, their bodies pinned by slabs of concrete and skewers of twisted metal. They will be, before long, the only two of their team left alive, and as they call out to one another, what strikes us, more than anything, is the gloomy static silence of the place they’re in. Their limbs are trapped, maybe crushed, their bodies lacerated with pain, and Stone allows their bloody, soot-caked faces, lying horizontal, to fill most of the frame — a realistic, at times nearly poetic image of survival wrestling with impotence. It’s as if they’ve passed into some shadow world, a vast crushed-wire tomb, with a solitary shaft of heavenly light — a ray of hope — shining down through the rubble above.
Having set us in this dank, claustrophobic, industrial purgatory, the movie returns to the outside world, picking up the trauma of the officers’ wives and families. Donna McLoughlin, played by a forceful Maria Bello, hides her fear behind a wall of fury; the pregnant Allison Jimeno, played by a gentle Maggie Gyllenhaal, masters hers by fretting over her baby’s name. The tone is personal and mournful; there is no mention of al-Qaeda, little reference to the surrounding spirit of national cataclysm. As Stone then returns, again and again, to that space beneath the rubble, he overwhelms us with the anxiety and eerie tranquility of death.
As a tribute to those who died, and survived, on Sept. 11, World Trade Center is a scrupulous and honorable film. Yet it never comes close to being a revelatory one; it sentimentalizes more than it haunts. At one point, Stone includes a spectacular digitized image of the World Trade Center in flames, viewed from a dramatic low angle — an unsettling shot because the pixelized smoke and debris are far less immediate, less disturbing, than the genuine, horrible video footage. That digitally created image made 9/11, to me, feel at once close and far away, and World Trade Center has the same effect: You’re always aware you’re watching a dramatization, with not-quite-desolate-enough sets of Ground Zero and actors transmuting the terror of experience into desperate nobility.
You could argue, of course, that director Paul Greengrass did a similar thing in United 93, but to me that movie’s brilliance was the way it undermined your defenses by restaging 9/11 with the electric realism of live media. To know what occurred, or might have occurred, on that plane, and to see it as if it was happening before your eyes, fed a need that was at once journalistic, patriotic, and wildly cinematic. It was exactly the sort of film you might have expected Oliver Stone to make, but World Trade Center isn’t a great Stone film; it’s more like a decent Ron Howard film.
As McLoughlin and Jimeno lie there, praying to be rescued, they speak about their kids, their bodily agony, at one point even taking inspiration from G.I. Jane, and the two actors find a quiet, touching connection. Yet it does no disservice to the suffering, and courage, of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno to say that there’s a fundamental lack of dramatic urgency to World Trade Center. The harrowing, at times unbearable grip of United 93 was part of its human tumult. Stone, who at his greatest is the most harrowing of filmmakers, now recedes into the conventionality of uplift. I felt as if he was atoning — for provocative remarks he made after 9/11, for the debacle of Alexander, for too much time in the Hollywood wilderness. He earns his penance, but at the expense of his art.