'World Trade Center'

EntertainmentHeroismJobs and WorkplaceMoviesTelevisionSeptember 11, 2001 Attacks

Although his name comes above the title, Nicolas Cage is hardly the star of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center."

On one hand, the media is making the director himself into the star, raving about Stone's restraint as if he deserves a pat on the back for not spinning a wild conspiracy theory regarding the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

For the director himself, though, the star of "WTC" is less of a person and more of an ideal. The movie is about how people came together on 9/11 and how an event that could have destroyed our National resolve actually created a community of heroes. It's a lofty theme, one that Stone does, indeed, deliver with what can only be described as restraint in relative terms.

On its surface, "World Trade Center" is the story of John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), New York Port Authority officers who rushed to the scene after the first plane hit the World Trade Center and found themselves buried in the rubble after the first Tower collapsed. Their simple heroism -- fighting to keep hope and to stay alive -- is mirrored in the struggle of their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal), both trying to maintain faith in the face of an unspeakable horror. As the movie progresses, a more collective hero emerges, as Stone and the script by Andrea Berloff, turn to the rescue workers who put their own lives in jeopardy that first night, dozens of them (represented most recognizably by actors like Stephen Dorff, William Mapother and Frank Whaley) willing to sacrifice themselves in an effort to find a potential handful of survivors.

"WTC" is likely to outperform this spring's "United 93" in large part because it lets viewers know exactly what to feel. While Paul Greengrass' "United 93" was a salute to American heroism, it expected audiences to extrapolate the rousing message from one of the darkest endings imaginable -- the truth. "WTC" also uses the truth, but it's a more conventionally uplifting story and, thus, there will be no conflicted emotions.

And Stone doesn't have any problems with pushing buttons, a reliable directorial signature that somewhat undermines all of this talk of his restraint. He doesn't shy from bawling wives, gauzy sentimental flashbacks or rousing musical scores, but there's little doubt that he could have gone more overboard. After the collapse of the Tower -- a sequence notable for its brevity and shocking force -- he aims for intimacy, shooting most of the scenes between Pena and Cage in tight close-ups, using sound design masterfully to convey the gravity of their overall situation. Bello and Gyllenhaal are also admirably contained, eschewing crescendos of wailing for the pensive conflict of lovers who can't bring themselves to believe the worst.

There's a clumsiness to the storytelling every time Stone moves away from the men in the rubble and their families at home. In the midst of horrified reaction shots, for example, Stone cuts to some stunned firemen in Wisconsin, a choppy transition that only somewhat pays off a hour later with a joke about brats. Similarly, the early scenes of Michael Shannon's Dave Karnes, a Marine-turned-office worker who leaves his job to go help at Ground Zero, are badly integrated. I guess Stone's point is to showcase this man who enters the picture like John Wayne, but willingly submits to being part of the cavalry, but given the intentional anonymity of most of the rescue workers, showcasing this one man and giving him only bellicose, reactionary dialogue feels like a mistake.

With our memories of 9/11 still so big, Stone doesn't have any problems going small, although the film is technically assured, particularly the huge sets, reproducing Ground Zero. As a result, there are times when "World Trade Center" can't help but feel like a TV movie. If audiences leave the theater moved, that needn't be seen as a negative.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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