Heroism in the Rubble

World Trade Center. Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maria Bello, and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in a film written by Andrea Berloff and directed by Oliver Stone.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

Hollywood’s inevitable fatal attraction to the 9/11 tragedy was, thankfully and remarkably, delayed by a cushion of several years. The first serious entry in the 9/11 film genre was this year’s surprisingly tasteful film United 93. Now comes the bigger, more sensational fare, with tall tale-teller Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center leading the way, timed for the day’s fifth anniversary.

Running against type in his own bombastic filmography, Stone’s tack here is to tighten the focus knob on a personal story amid the pandemonium and sense of impending and actual doom at ground zero. No conspiracy theories are lubricated, and there are none of the grand scale overview or mythic overtures we might expect, given the film’s title or the director’s past. Instead, Stone delivers his most mainstream and most agreeably sentimental film yet, true to the script and the true story told by survivors John McLoughlin and William Jimeno and their wives Donna and Allison.

Like United 93, Stone’s film begins in the early hours of that ill-fated morning, as our protagonists, members of the Port Authority police department, embark on what should have been just another day in N.Y.C. They have no inkling of the horror soon to unfold. Sergeant McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and officer Jimeno (Michael Peña) end up trapped under rubble for an increasingly claustrophobic day. Unlike most of the known world, they have no concept of the scale of terror above ground. Michael Shannon shows up as a Shane-like character, a mystical Marine who saves the day. Much of the story plays off the juxtaposition of the men’s dim and dusty perch and the clean, well-lit homes where families anxiously wait for word. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal bring empathetic intensity to their roles as wives-in-wait.

Oddly, this big, old-fashioned Hollywood movie brings the tragic, chaotic day down to the familiar, digestible terms of feel-good movie making. We settle in with our popcorn and wallow in the comfy rule set of American movie logic. Maybe that’s the best way for us to collectively grieve and put 9/11 in some historical context. On artistic terms, World Trade Center lacks necessary complexity, but maybe it’s critic-proof, just as the tragedy upended so many day-to-day operations and priorities in society.

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