“You kept me alive.”
These four words represent one of several emotionally personal moments of this film, which puts individual characters in the forefront while including video clips and creative camera shots to touch on the grander scale of the tragic events on September 11, 2001. World Trade Center begins in silence then gradually fills the audience’s emotions with a wide range of feelings without manipulation through actual personal account of the events on September 11, 2001.
Veteran director Oliver Stone (JFK, Platoon) helms this honorable portrayal of one of our nation’s most surprising tragedies. Stone slowly builds to the main action in New York with subtle camera shots while introducing other characters in different settings across the nation.
The only iconic images in the film come from people suffering and those who suffered with them. No heroic poses, no grandstanding. Still, this film is no action movie or entertainment. Filmmakers remain sensitive to the audience’s emotional tolerance throughout the film by cutting to black screen then calmer events after action sequences.
The content of the film covers many emotional elements (e.g. love, fate, sacrifice, and even revenge) while prompting some of the same questions people asked themselves during the events. Where was my family when it happened? What can I do to help? Should I take off work and travel there to help?
The content, drama and characters are there. It’s basically up to the filmmakers to produce a visual account of the 9/11 events that audiences will watch. Filmmakers succeed with this daunting challenge by making a compelling film in the tradition of Titanic and Apollo 13 where audiences already know the general outcome, but are still engaged in the personal stories of the characters. These individual stories work so well that a documentary-like sequence of actual footage seems out of place because it runs a little too long. The upcoming documentary On Native Soil should cover most of that ground.
Andrea Berloff (who was also a struggling actress) wrote the screenplay, based on the actual accounts of Port Authority Police Department officers John McLoughlin and William Jimeno and their respective wives, Donna and Allison.
Nicolas Cage portrays Sergeant John McLoughlin who leads his police group into the towers while keeping them calm as they gather equipment needed for this special rescue scenario. “You can’t rescue anybody if you can’t breathe,” he tells a gung-ho officer who wants to sprint straight into the action.
One of John’s subordinates, William J. Jimeno, well played by Michael Pena (Crash), echoes the sentiments of the rescue team who admire John and volunteer to “follow the best guy in.” William is a likeable and somewhat inexperienced officer who faces laughter and tears throughout his struggle.
Soon, the two officers are thrust into a situation beyond their comprehension where they remain for the rest of the film. Cage and Pena portray a realistic struggle as they deal with their environment and their own fears. These actors endure a lot of physical hardships and portray great emotion through their expressions while delivering several lines of memorable dialogue.
Maria Bello plays John’s wife, Donna, and Maggie Gyllenhaal plays William’s wife, Allison. Both women seek the solace of family throughout the ordeal and discover how strong their love and devotion can be. Donna makes an especially memorable connection with another mother who is distraught over the whereabouts of her son (who was in contact with John’s rescue team) and her last encounter with him.
Two other heroic duos also have prominent roles in the second half of the film. An Ex-Marine Dave Karnes, played by Michael Shannon, embodies the willingness to help survivors of the attacks and the flaming desire to fight back. Karnes eventually meets Private First Class Dave Thomas, played by William Mapother, who assists Karnes with his emotional mission.
An experienced paramedic Chuck Sereika, played by Frank Whaley, and rescue worker Scott Strauss, played by Stephen Dorff, also navigate through an immense pile of “pickup sticks” at Ground Zero to help others.
Filmmakers create a nice balance between the action and non-action sequences while showing quick visual clips of actual news coverage and relevant mentions of past terrorist/World Trade Center events. One memorable sequence includes a main character walking down the street where every neighbor’s television set flickers and echoes through the street with sounds of 9/11 news alerts.
Stone uses flashbacks and even dream-like sequences as transitions between the PAPD duo and the family members who hold on to the hope of their survival.
The intricate set-design and booming sound play huge roles especially during an intense sequence where the harrowing noise drowns out one of the characters. Powerful visuals get the emotion across without glorifying the terrorist’s actions. Creative camera shots help audiences understand the action without seeing the horrifying visuals of the main attacks on each tower. The make-up on the characters becomes extremely important during the emotional close-up shots as each character’s glistening eyes show their constant struggle for life.
This 129-minute account has a few awkward, "TV movie of the week" moments of drama/emotion, but the overall experience works. I recommend this film that is rated PG-13 for intense situations, peril, and action. Be sure to watch the statistics at the ending credits.