Attempting to convey a macro vision of Sept. 11 through a micro lens, Oliver Stone is to be credited for presenting this challenging, fact-based story with admirable restraint, a quality that has not always characterized his past directorial efforts. Yet these events — which require no dramatic embellishment — by their nature result in a claustrophobic film, as two port authority cops lie buried in rubble struggling to survive. As such, “World Trade Center” yields lovely and touching moments but proves a slow-going, arduous movie experience, if more uplifting than Universal’s earlier test of that historic day’s box office potential, “United 93.”
With the upcoming five-year anniversary of the towers’ fall as a somewhat arbitrary milestone, Paramount’s task to sell another movie steeped in 9/11 lore remains a formidable one. That’s largely because those harrowing images were shared initially through the prism of television and have been explored effectively and extensively within that medium, from Jules and Gedeon Naudet’s CBS documentary “9/11” — which most closely mirrors elements here — to the various dramatizations related to United 93 and other aspects of the story.
Stone’s film bears some thematic resemblance to “Alive,” Frank Marshall’s 1993 chronicle of a plane crash in the Andes. Both offer a tribute to human endurance under unimaginable conditions, but watching young guys huddle together trying not to freeze to death or two cops pinned under tons of debris isn’t exactly a cinematic thrill ride.
The first produced screenplay from Andrea Berloff, “World Trade Center” begins with a quiet, powerful sense of foreboding, as the characters go about what will be anything but another mundane Tuesday.
Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) drives through the early morning twilight to his job at the New York Port Authority, where there’s a “Hill Street Blues”-type briefing before chaos erupts over news that a plane has struck the World Trade Center. McLoughlin and a busload of officers, including Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), rush to the scene with scant sense of what’s happening.
“There’s no plan” for an evacuation of this magnitude, the taciturn McLoughlin says in his rough accent, as he prepares his team to ascend into the building, which creaks ominously. Then, suddenly, the world comes crashing down around them, belching out a huge cloud of dust that leaves McLoughlin and Jimeno trapped dozens of feet below ground, desperately trying to maintain consciousness — convinced, somehow, that succumbing to pain and exhaustion by falling sleep will mean certain death.
So far, so good, but it’s at this point that the movie perhaps inevitably bogs down. Largely eschewing flashbacks (some are used sparingly), Stone alternates between the imperiled cops, McLoughlin’s wife Donna (Maria Bello), and Jimeno’s very pregnant spouse Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who waits nervously with her extended family for word regarding her husband.
A fourth thread — and surely the most interesting — centers on Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a spit-and-polish former Marine who, improbably, dons his dress uniform and drives from Connecticut directly to Ground Zero, where he wades through desolation that resembles the nightmare vision of “The Terminator,” searching for survivors.
Beyond this core, Stone has populated his film with terrific actors in even minor parts, from the various cops to Viola Davis as a worried mother with a missing son to Donna Murphy as one of Donna’s friends. The fact remains, though, that long stretches are shot in tight close-up on John and more personable Will lying immersed in gray muck, seeking to stay alive. While both actors deliver strong performances, they are confined by the narrative figuratively as well as literally, spurring a degree of impatience for the climax.
For Paramount, the saving grace could be that many who venture into the theater will do so with at best cursory knowledge of the story’s resolution, unlike the grim certainty of “United 93,” which yielded modest returns despite considerable advance coverage and praise. Yet both this and the Universal film ultimately present an inspiring vision of can-do American spirit amid adversity, exemplified by Karnes and the rescue workers (played by, among others, Stephen Dorff and Frank Whaley) risking life and limb to assist complete strangers.
Technically, Stone’s production is a work of superior craftsmanship, highlighted by astonishing sound quality, which captures the towers’ destruction with a staggering din as the buildings give way. Craig Armstrong also delivers an appropriately sensitive score.
Among the pic’s credited producers is Debra Hill, who developed the material before dying of cancer last year.