Beneath Ground Zero

“What do you mean <i>United 93</i> already got the memorable catchphrase?”

“What do you mean United 93 already got the memorable catchphrase?”

Rated 2.0

Oliver Stone hasn’t made a decent movie in 12 years. His last OK movie was Natural Born Killers (1994)—an insane picture that probably worked because the man behind the camera was nuts. Since then, he’s churned out piece of crap after piece of crap, including the JFK wannabe Nixon, U-Turn and, worst of all, Alexander.

No doubt, Stone is capable of greatness, and the good news is World Trade Center is his best film since Natural Born Killers. The bad news would be that it still isn’t a very good movie.

Credit Stone for not allowing any of his conspiracy theories to pollute what should be an uplifting film about two brave men who survived underneath the rubble of the Twin Towers on 9/11. His film is utterly void of the wild postulations that made JFK so intriguing and Nixon so ridiculous.

The main problem here seems to be that Stone wouldn’t know subtlety if it, quite uncharacteristically, came up behind him, turned his ass around and screamed in his out-of-touch face. He handles the prelude to disaster fine, but once the two main characters wind up stuck in the rubble, the film becomes a heavy-handed metropolitan soap opera.

Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena do their best as Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two men who experienced an unimaginable hell on that day. Both officers consulted with Stone and the actors to make sure the depiction of their experience was as authentic as possible.

Called to the scene after the first plane hit the towers and riding on a bus when the second plane hit, the two men were plotting a rescue operation with fellow officers in the World Trade Center’s shopping mall concourse when the first tower collapsed. The collapse sequence is horrifying, as it should be, and the predicament the men find themselves in is unspeakable. Trapped under tons of debris and not even aware that the buildings had actually collapsed, the two men find themselves fighting to stay awake, knowing that sleep could mean death.

While the story of their rescue—the two were numbers 18 and 19 out of a total of 20 pulled from the rubble—is extraordinary, it honestly makes for a boring movie. Stone spends much time with the actors’ trapped heads filling up the screen and talking, not the most compelling screen images.

The parallel story of their wives trying to cope with their husbands’ unknown fates is unwatchable for the wrong reasons. What these women had to deal with was unconscionably terrible, yet Stone reduces their sufferings to cliché. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal try valiantly to make this portion of the film meaningful but to no avail. Even worse is the strange depiction of the men’s eventual rescuer, former Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), as some sort of nut.

Stone’s film contains a visually powerful recreation of Ground Zero, a few strong performances and an honorable core. What it doesn’t have is a consistent sense of quality drama, and that’s a flagrant foul considering the subject matter. Earlier this year, director Paul Greengrass made the unforgettable 9/11 film United 93, which stands as the year’s best film to date. World Trade Center is an average movie at best, a film that falls somewhere in the middle of Stone’s erratic cinematic offerings.

With all due respect to the heroic men and women depicted in this story, I don’t think Oliver Stone was the right choice for this film. This guy has been rolling gutter balls for quite some time, and he lost his ability to realistically depict human emotions many years ago. Putting such an important piece of history in his unreliable hands was a mistake, and the underwhelming results are proof of that.