It's taken the Hollywood system five years to come up with a major motion picture about what happened at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, but if you think that time was used for thoughtful introspection and careful analysis about the best way to approach those agonizing and unprecedented events, you just don't know Hollywood.
What that time has gone into instead is making the story of Sept. 11 fit as closely as possible into the business-as-usual norms of sentimental studio moviemaking. The problem is not so much that "World Trade Center" is an attempt to make a feel-good movie about a ghastly situation, it's that the result feels forced, manufactured and largely — but not entirely — unconvincing.
For the reality of what took place on the streets of Lower Manhattan is such an overwhelmingly sad and troubling story that simply re-creating those horrific events, as this film does, guarantees that your work will have moments of power and emotion. A person's heart would have to be made of stone if he or she weren't at least a little affected by the against-all-odds rescue of two Port Authority policemen, played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña, from beneath crushing piles of rubble, as their despairing wives, played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, cry literal tears of joy.
What the reality of the World Trade Center gives to a film, it can also take away. Because those events are guaranteed to elicit emotion in a way that is almost Pavlovian, we hold depictions of them to a higher standard. We don't want this story of all stories to devolve into a standard studio scenario, full of uplifting messages about bringing out "the goodness we forgot could exist." But, as directed by Oliver Stone and written by newcomer Andrea Berloff, that is just what we get. In part, this is because "World Trade Center" has been conceived as a memorial, a tribute to those who have fallen and those who survived, and memorials, while necessary and commendable, do not always make for the best drama.
But more than this, though the events it depicts are real, questionable choices at key junctures have made "World Trade Center" play more contrived than heartfelt. It is a film that pushes too hard for emotional effects and displays a weakness for easy choices whenever it can.
That it is Stone, the iconoclastic director of "JFK," "Natural Born Killers" and "Salvador," who is assuming the standard Hollywood position speaks sad volumes about the grinding effects of decades spent confronting the studio system.
The old Stone was not exactly a bargain, but he was never this pious or this conventional.
The difficulty here, though, is not that Stone has gone all sincere on us but that he has no gift for that state of mind, not to mention that the depiction of ordinary people in crisis has not always been his strength.
As a result, "World Trade Center" often feels like something constructed from a blueprint of standard movie situations rather than honestly felt in any genuine way.
Even more puzzling is that Stone, usually viewed as the antichrist in conservative circles, has made a film that rightist commentators are falling all over themselves to applaud. Cal Thomas, in a much-quoted example, has called it "one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see." This tribute comes in part because "World Trade Center" makes an explicit connection between Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq that will make the Bush White House and the Republican National Committee eager to embrace it as their own.
All of this is in the future, however, as "World Trade Center" opens at 3:29 a.m. on Sept. 11 with Port Authority police Sgt. John McLoughlin (Cage) beating the 3:30 alarm, not disturbing wife Donna (Bello) and their three children, and getting ready to drive an hour and a half to his assignment at Manhattan's Port Authority bus terminal.
We also see several other Port Authority policemen making their way into work, but, confusingly, they are not as clearly delineated as Cage's character and there is no real way to tell that it is Will Jimeno (Peña) whose story we will follow to the end.
"World Trade Center" is at its most effective in its first half-hour, when McLoughlin leads a group of police downtown to help with evacuations after word comes of the crash into the first tower.
Three men, including Jimeno, volunteer to go in with the sergeant. Then, in a moment of absolute terror that is very hard to watch, the tower collapses around them. Soon, only two of the four, McLoughlin and Jimeno, remain alive, but they're buried under so much debris that any kind of movement, let alone escape, is not possible.
Unfeeling as it may sound to say so, one of the problems "World Trade Center" has is that having your protagonists immobilized for half the movie is a seriously anti-dramatic situation, especially because it's hardly a secret — even the film's poster trumpets it — that the men survived.
The pair are pinned down close enough to each other to talk, and they alternately share memories and scream in agony. They tell each other that they married the right wives and insist "pain is your friend, it means you're alive."
Cage (in a role Clint Eastwood would have been offered 20 years ago) and Peña do the best they can, but this is a less than compelling situation.
Because even Billy Wilder realized in "Ace in the Hole" that there is only so much you can do with a trapped protagonist, "World Trade Center" spends a great deal of time outside the crash area with the two men's wives. This also proves to be a chancy business.
Bello is a gifted, empathetic actress, so time spent with Donna McLoughlin is never wasted, but, once again, the situations she lives through are not convincingly portrayed on screen. Especially bothersome are her flashbacks to warm moments in the past, when her husband was fixing the roof or teaching one of their sons how to use a saw, memories that have all the emotional texture of promotional spots for Hallmark cards.
As Jimeno's pregnant wife, Allison, Gyllenhaal has a much tougher time of it. For whatever combination of writing, acting and directing, the agony and distress that this character goes through plays, regrettably, as petulant hysteria, and a "Gift of the Magi" subplot about a husband-wife difference of opinion over what to name their unborn daughter is a trial to experience.
The strangest part of "World Trade Center," however, is yet to come. That would be the based-on-fact character of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), an accountant in Wilton, Conn., who watches the news on Sept. 11 and tells his co-workers, "I don't know if you guys know it yet, but this country's at war."
Looking for all the world like the kind of completely deranged individual you would expect to be hanging out with Freddy Krueger, Karnes turns out to be one of "World Trade Center's" heroes. After telling his pastor that he is literally on a mission from God, he gets his hair cut short, breaks out his old Marine uniform, sneaks into the World Trade Center site and becomes instrumental in saving the two buried men.
Then comes the coup de grâce. "They're going to need some good men to avenge this," Karnes says ominously, and the next thing you know, a title card tells us that the man reenlisted in the Marines and served two tours of duty in Iraq. Even the conspiracy theories that Stone floated in "JFK" pale beside this blatant support of the big lie linking Iraq and Sept. 11.
Larded with fake uplifting moments too numerous to mention, "World Trade Center's" insistence on up-close-and-personal heroics puts it at the opposite end of the spectrum from Paul Greengrass' austere "United 93." If that film had too little overt emotion, this one has too much. It's too bad it wasn't Greengrass who directed Berloff's script. That would have been the Sept. 11 film worth waiting for.
'World Trade Center'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language
A Paramount Pictures release. Director Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Andrea Berloff, based on the true life events of John and Donna McLoughlin, William and Allison Jimeno. Producers Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Moritz Borman, Debra Hill. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey. Editors David Brenner, Julie Monroe.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.
In general release.