Lead actor contender

If all the films that might benefit from reconsideration during Oscar season, “World Trade Center” may have the most to gain.

Not because it failed to get a fair shake the first time around, but rather because all the static that surrounded its initial reception — the election, partisan rancor, the competing uses of patriotism; what director Oliver Stone terms “the curse of politics” — are no longer with us.

By the same token, Nicolas Cage’s central performance, in which he is immobilized in a hole in the ground for most of the pic, in fact may be one of his most experimental — the disembodied head in Beckett’s “Happy Days,” rendered invisible in the cloak of naturalism — much as his dueling Charlie and Donald Kaufmans in “Adaptation” appeared so effortless as to cancel out the achievement.

“There was a sense that it would be a new breakthrough for him,” says Stone, who committed to the project within 24 hours of reading the script, as did Cage. “He was playing an older, quieter, more austere role. It was a lot of interior work — more so for Nic, because he was the quieter of the two men, the more taciturn.

“It’s a very polished performance, because Nic is a professional and knows how to get these effects. He puts a road map of emotions into his face. When you do these scenes with simple words and big emotions, they’re very intense scenes. And he’s doing them in dust and shit, where you can barely see his eyes. You have to have windows in the eyes so people can get in, and we’re right on the edge of seeing him through all of this stuff. So it’s easy to overlook that and underestimate what he did.”

Stone claims he set out to make a Frank Capra film as a monument to the events of Sept. 11 — counterintuitive, perhaps, until we remember that the scenes of Jimmy Stewart driven mad by sleeplessness in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or nearly suicidal over business failures in “It’s a Wonderful Life” are among the bleakest in cinema.

“We came as close to a death state as you can get,” adds Stone, “and Nic takes it right to the edge. You sense that inside he had made the decision to live. And I think to project that quietly, without even dialogue, is so tough.”

Next project: “Ghost Rider,” with Eva Mendes; Lee Tamahori-directed “Next,” based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, with Julianne Moore.

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