While the event that will have forever changed this country on September 11 is almost five years in the past, it has stayed in the nation's collective conciousness every day. It is referred to in movies, television shows, and talked about on news reports. Earlier this year, United 93 was the first film to come out about that fateful day and people were wondering if it was too soon. Now World Trade Center enters theatres at the beginning of August and that question has been answered. Is it too soon? No.
World Trade Center is an emotional, gut-wrenching film based on the true story of two Port Authority police officers who survived the collapse of the two towers and were pulled out 22 hours later. While never showing the planes hit the towers and having all the information being second-hand through cell phones and conversation (which was a brilliant move), Oliver Stone has created a sense of disconnectedness and confusion that permeated that day. Most of the first response teams on the ground didn't even know that the second tower had also been hit by a plane.
The story follows John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) as they make their way to the World Trade Center. While walking on the concourse, the first tower begins to collapse, giving McLoughlin precious few seconds to make a decision. He directs his team to the elevator shaft, essentially saving their lives. Out of the five on his team, three survive – including Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez). Later on, Pezzulo is killed by the second tower falling. From here, the focus of the film is shifted in various directions – including the wives of McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a discharged marine who hears a higher power telling him to help (Michael Shannon), and the various people trying to contribute.
World Trade Center, instead of focusing on this disastrous day as a whole, takes a different route and tells a more personal and intimate tale. By sharing their story, director Stone is able to impart the courage and selflessness of our country through their suffering.
There still are scenes that take your breath away. When the first tower falls and the rescue team is in the concourse, it is visceral filmmaking. You feel as if you are there, with the ceiling falling and the earth shaking. The scene in which Pezzulo is crushed and is gasping his last breath is heartbreaking for many reasons – the most obvious one is that he was not trapped under fragments from the first tower and was possibly able to escape but stayed behind to try and help Jimeno.
The performances are all excellent. There are few standout performances because this is more of an ensemble piece where every part makes the overall acting that much better. In a toned down performance, Cage hits all the right marks and makes you forget that he is Nicolas Cage. Maggie Gyllenhaal is outstanding as Jimeno's pregnant wife – she makes us believe that in this time of crisis, it is hard to really know what is best for you. Jay Hernandez, for the small part that he has, gives the performance of his career so far. Stephen Dorff, as the police officer that helps the two buried men, is excellent – it is refreshing to see him back in movies and Dorff delivers some of the most gut-check lines in the film.
It is refreshing to see Stone return to his Platoon form. This film involves no crazy camera techniques or a flair for his JFK conspiracy side, but the film is above and beyond anything he has done since JFK. While World Trade Center will most likely be labeled a controversial film for its subject matter, it gives no reason to be tagged as such. In the screening that I attended, the last hour all I could hear was sniffling and stifled crying. This film hits the heart, and hits it hard. No one will be able to deny that this is one of the best films of the year.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Stephen Dorff, Frank Whaley
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Running Time: 2 Hours and 10 Minutes
4 stars (out of 4)