Nicolas Cage as John McLoughlin
Michael Peña as Will Jimeno
Jay Hernandez as Dominick Pezzulo
Maria Bello as Donna McLoughlin
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Allison Jimeno
Stephen Dorff as Scott Strauss
Michael Shannon as Dave Karnes
Armando Riesco as Antonio Rodrigues
William Mapother as Private First Class Dave Thomas
Viola Davis as Mother in Hospital
Donna Murphy as Judy Jonas
Wass M. Stevens as Pat McLoughlin
Patti D’Arbanville as Lynne
Brad William Henke as Jerry
Lucia Brawley as Karen
Jon Bernthal as Christopher Amoroso
Frank Whaley as Chuck Sereika
Directed by Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone’s attempt at telling one of the many stories of 9/11 does a good job recreating the events, but quickly turns into a tedious and often emotionally manipulative opportunity to stand on a soapbox and wave the flag.
Port Authority police officers Sgt John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and rookie Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) are called down to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 for a rescue and recovery mission, but end up being trapped in the fall of the towers. This is their story.
It’s hard to watch an Oliver Stone movie without analyzing every single scene and word, trying to determine his intentions, because he’s become quite infamous as a director always trying to make a point. It’s even more difficult when you deal with a subject matter like 9/11 and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, because it hits so close to home in so many ways. Then again, it really isn’t about the attacks, as much as it is about how they affected two men trapped under the falling buildings and their families back home worrying about their safety.
The first half hour of the movie introduces the two men and their team of Port Authority cops, called downtown to help with rescue operations in an incident that sounds eerily similar to the World Trade Center bomb incident of 1993. It’s an effective set-up which includes jarring images like the shadow of a plane on a building and a body falling from the towers as the Port Authority team shows up to help. The men didn’t have a chance to rescue anyone before the first tower collapses, trapping them underneath, leaving only two of them alive.
From that point, the movie turns into a tedious talking heads piece, staged like an off-Broadway play, as the two men try to keep each other alive by telling each other stories about their lives and families and talking about nonsensical subjects. It takes over 45 minutes before the men’s wives and families are introduced, and for the next hour, it cuts back and forth between the trapped men and the worried families. A lot of the scenes back home seem unnecessary or just plain ridiculous, and though it’s been claimed that everything said was truthful to actual events, screenwriter Andrea Berloff’s writing is banal, Hollywood screenwriting, full of cliches. It makes much of the movie come across as cheesy melodrama as Stone tries to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.
Nicolas Cage may not have been the best actor to play Sgt. John McLaughlin, because being such a recognizable star, his presence takes you out of the reality of the situation, and both he and his wife, played by Maria Bello, would have been more convincing without the affected New York accents. Michael Peña is better as Will Jimino, as both he and Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing Jimino’s wife Allison, have strong emotional moments that make them stand out.
The weak actors playing the rest of the McLoughlin and Jimino actors don’t do much to help avoid movie of the week comparisons, and even Bello, usually a great actress, gets in a bit of last minute scenery-chomping. On the other hand, Stone gets a surprisingly good performance out of Stephen Dorff as rescuer Scott Strauss, and there’s a nice third act peak thanks to Viola Davis as a worried mother Allison meets while waiting for her husband’s rescue.
On top of that, the movie does look great, its most commendable aspect being the way it recreates the falling of the towers in a horrifically realistic way and how the Ground Zero site was recreated on soundstages, a masterful achievement in set and production design. Most of the story plays out on this claustrophobic space, and it’s a shame that like the real Ground Zero, it’s turned into a setting for much grandstanding, flagwaving and even a bit of religion in the form of Jimino’s delirious visions and the spiritual ideology of rescuer David Karnes, a former Marine used as the movie’s political fulcrum. After an earlier remark about the attack being an “act of war,” Karnes capes off the movie with a comment about avenging it, something which still hasn’t happened almost five years later. It’s the type of politics we’ve come to see from Stone in an attempt to win over the flagwavers.
Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” was an homage to the victims and families of those that died in that act of terrorism on 9/11. Because there were no survivors, it involved a lot of conjecture about what happened on that fated flight, and yet its execution made it seem more real, as if you were there. The players didn’t need to be introduced with a handshake or roll call for you to care about them. “World Trade Center” just isn’t as powerful, and it often seems gratuitous and exploitative of the dramatic nature of its setting. Even the minimalist score by Craig “Moulin Rouge!” Armstrong tries to make every single moment more poignant than it actually is.
While “United 93” really shook me up, “World Trade Center” is less about the experiences of the thousands and millions affected by 9/11, as it is about two men and their families. Essentially, Stone ignores most of the 2,748 people who died that day to focus on a few dozen rescue workers, and by the end, it’s only about the survivors, the dead relegated to a text scroll epilogue that almost seems like an after-thought. Those not in or near New York City on that day might appreciate the movie’s justification of the soapbox rhetoric that followed, but the movie’s intentions seem oddly misplaced, because those who lived through it won’t need a movie to remind us to appreciate our firemen and rescue workers for their efforts.
The Bottom Line:
Oliver Stone has made another great-looking movie, but despite the director’s daring effort to document the unspeakable, it’s a disappointing Hollywood attempt to make a softer and friendlier 9/11 story for those who need such a thing to deal with the effects of the terrorist attacks. In the end, it’s as much about Stone’s own patriotic views as it is about the police officers, and it comes across like an overt Oscar plea, using hokey and obvious melodrama that couldn’t possibly work.