World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's paean to the bravery of America, through his retelling of a courageous real life story, is one of the toughest films I have had to form an opinion on. Unlike United 93
before it, this is not a dark, brooding study of the frailties of human behavior during the 9/11 attacks. It is a straightforward story about survival, courage and hope, and frankly, something I did not expect from Stone.
This is the story of Will Jimeno and John McCloughlin, two Port Authority officers who rush to help when the towers are attacked and inevitably begin to collapse. Of the 2,000 odd people who were stuck in the rubble, despite the efforts of rescue workers, only 20 people could be saved. Jimeno and McCloughlin were numbers 18 and 19. During their fight with the mounting odds, their families worry about them, and you learn to sit and watch a very un-Stone like film.
This is an out-and-out studio film in the way it is structured, written, and, ultimately, presented, and despite a major auteur at the helm, it largely remains a staid yet rote tribute/rescue film. Thematically, this film is far from the Stone we are used to seeing, and the script smacks of an unoriginal writer run amok with a true, inspiring story. Even so, Stone's absence of any distinctive vision is not jarring in its entirety.
In fact the whole film is constructed very delicately, and there are no flashy cuts or dazzling camera trickery. The writing may leave some punch to be desired, but Stone presents the opening shots and build up in the most sober, and responsible, manner, never once falling prey to his own personality. There are some deft humane touches to the beginning, and he comes across as strongly in control, telling a character drama about everyday heroes.
In order to establish his heroes best, Stone has involved seasoned actors Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña as McCloughlin and Jimeno, respectively. To better service Stone's singularly calm approach, Cage keeps his performance in check, and gives an understated performance. Peña, on the other hand, steals the show, portraying his character with such a human touch, it scares you every time he is terrified for his or his fellow's well-being.
The script on the other hand is nothing but subtle, rescued only by Stone's decisions to keep it restrained to an extent, though he fails as much as he succeeds. The collapse of the towers and the first people to jump the falling buildings are almost always presented by sound effects and through the point of view of the people in the hallway. The scenes when the officers are stuck and struggling to survive let loose the horror that were the 9/11 attacks.
The scenes with the families tend to go in the maudlin and trite territories, coupled with tired piano music in the background. Why must they create these faux emotional moments in a film that is a real life story
? Maybe the moments were meant to help us empathize with the families of the survivors, and are historically accurate, but the way they are written and handled just makes you roll your eyes in disbelief.
The families of the officers were involved closely with the making of the film, and given that fact, the shopworn moments come off as disconcerting. The script is full of such mawkish set pieces, and a film that could have been a great tribute to the officers and the rescue workers becomes a standard Hollywood film about surviving a catastrophe.
There are moments of great emotion and intense heroism, but the movie wants to be a rote Hollywood biography about the men, and nothing - not even Oliver Stone - can stop it. This is not a bad film, or even entirely formulaic. This is a film that hero-worships its characters instead of treating them as humans. It ends up being more entertainment fare than a deeper introspective, and hey, that's not always bad. True, but then any entertainer could have helmed it, too.
This is a film that helps shine a light on a singular part of the large 9/11 picture, and it does it well. It could have been a far better film if the restraint that Stone exercises did not mutate into melodrama, instead remaining full of grit and the charm that permeates the first half hour. It is a tough film to form opinion on, as it does a lot right, and then a lot wrong, but you can't help but think, that maybe this is what people want in these times of fear?