The movie doesn't stay below ground with the trapped knights, however, but opens the situation up by showing what McLoughlin and Jimeno remember about their wives, and what their distraught wives remember about them. McLoughlin's wife Donna (Maria Bello), mother of his four kids, is a relatively stoic woman who believes all she can do is wait for word. Her younger son, who mistakes her stoicism for indifference, prods her into going to Manhattan to find John. Jimeno's wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), pregnant with their second daughter, is more impatient than Donna, but her energy is mostly wasted. She can't sit still, but of course she can't accomplish anything, either. (Her restless trip to the drug store is a highlight because it makes its point without undue emphasis — Allison is dizzy in anticipation of grief.)
Both damsels help their imperiled husbands more than they know, however, by giving them something to hang on for. That becomes the rationale for the movie's back-and-forth between the men losing strength in the bowels of the ruins and the women fretting and hoping. Currently there are no actresses I'd rather watch than Bello and Gyllenhaal, and they're never trite here (though neither is quite convincing as a working-class woman, in part because of the formulaic way the script has them interact with their children), but this structure is a mistake, and not only because Stone imposes no discernible moviemaking rhythm on it. The movie's real mistake is to take as its focus the single least unusual aspect of September 11 — the fact that the murdered and wounded loved their families and were loved back. Though the script is fact-based, it inevitably smacks of old-fashioned Hollywood idealization: would the men's ordeal be less moving if they had been on the verge of divorces, or lousy fathers?
The handling is nonetheless slightly eccentric, in that the memories of the alternately numb and pain-wracked men merge with phantasms. The parched Jimeno can see lights above through a parting in the wreckage and it becomes a vision of Jesus with a burning heart coming to him with a plastic water bottle; an apparitional Donna tells McLoughlin to get off his ass and come home to finish the cabinets he started. The latter would play better if we hadn't already been cued by dialogue that Donna was upset about her unfinished kitchen. The script's generally kinkless, non-ideological approach could use more of this kind of particularity, and a subtler, even comic touch. The only detail with the right kind of incidental charm is when Jimeno reminisces about wanting to be a cop since watching Starsky and Hutch as a kid: as soon as he heard the theme song he'd chase his sister around the house and arrest her.