First responders

World Trade Center

Nic Cage—the face that carried a thousand movies. Or at least this one.

Nic Cage—the face that carried a thousand movies. Or at least this one.

Rated 3.0

Just who the hell does Oliver Stone think he is? Only when we stop asking will his career be finished. Scourge of the right, uneasy ally of the left, Stone has, over three decades, declared himself a filmmaker predisposed to nursing America’s psychic traumas—often through wily exaggerations of style and of historical facts.

And, whether the world is ready for it or not, the time has come for his 9/11 movie. It’s entirely reasonable to expect a salacious spectacle here, some incendiary blast of paranoid revisionism told in a tossed salad of cheap (if expensive) shots. But if that is what you expect, you will be disappointed. Maybe just making World Trade Center only five years after the fact was brazen enough; the film itself, at least by Stone standards, is a picture of restraint. Mostly what you’ll get from World Trade Center is what Stone still is good for: men going through hell together.

In this case, the men are Port Authority Police Sgt. John McLoughlin and officer Will Jimeno, who braved the burning trade-center towers, got trapped in the rubble of their collapse and toughed it out until being rescued. Also, there are all the other cops who went in with them but didn’t come out.

McLoughlin and Jimeno, real people here portrayed by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña respectively, spend most of their screen time pinned down in the darkness, writhing with pain, trying to stay conscious and trading regret-laced reminiscences of their families. That may sound dramatically inert, and it is—not least because we know from the beginning that the pair will survive the ordeal. But the actors respond to the challenge skillfully, conveying volumes with only their scuffed, soot-encrusted faces.

Faces are what World Trade Center does best. Essentially, and perhaps most appropriately, it’s a movie full of reaction shots—registering the shock, desperation, horror, rage, grief and other unnamable feelings that ripped through the world on that day. Stone knows we’ve already overloaded on images of the destruction itself. He’s right to figure there’s more to be had from scenes of unvarnished human intimacy: between the cops; between their rescuer, the religiously earnest ex-Marine David Karnes (Michael Shannon), and his God; between Will’s wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and her father (Peter McRobbie) on a bathroom floor; between John’s wife, Donna (Maria Bello), and a stranger (Viola Davis) in a hospital waiting room; between people in the streets—gathered in real news footage from all over the planet—and so on.

Such material, though sometimes disingenuously PG-13ish—the cops don’t swear much, let alone make any politically incorrect pronouncements—is potent enough to obviate both Craig Armstrong’s banal, cloying score and the summarizing voice-over narration that comes from nowhere at the movie’s end. Actually, were it not for the enormity of the event and its automatic emotional valence, World Trade Center might just come off like a slickly made movie of the week or a special, two-part episode of any decent TV police drama. (If Peña seems familiar, for instance, it may be because he’s been in NYPD Blue, CSI and The Shield.) But so what? This is only one of cinema’s direct responses to the history it depicts, choosing, as is its prerogative, to make few demands of the intellect, preferring instead simply to go for the gut. And indeed, to remain unmoved by it would require total sociopathy.

World Trade Center is the first produced feature-length screenplay by Andrea Berloff, who interviewed the survivors at length and came away erring on the side of reverence—but also, usefully, lacking a more-seasoned writer’s jadedness. The leanness of Berloff’s script lets us, and Stone, get close to it; had he made a picture of wider scope and critical ferocity, as he once implied he would, we might never be ready to go there. But when a director who routinely hits everyone over the head undertakes a movie about the world falling down on men’s heads, how can we not want to see what he makes?

World Trade Center amounts to a simple, square-jawed story about being afflicted with brutalizing impotence and responding with patience, love and bravery. For Oliver Stone, that’s not bad.