2½ stars (out of four)
From the stars-and-stripes palette of its very first shot, a simple bedroom interior focusing on a digital clock's crimson numerals against an indigo background, the Oliver Stone film "World Trade Center" wields a simple, blunt emotional instrument. It is a film about an American tragedy done up in the trappings of honorable, well-meaning melodrama. No film, documentary or fiction, better captures the rhetorical moment. Already you can sense a cultural divide regarding Stone's film. Either you're with it or you're against it.
First came the Paul Greengrass film "United 93," a slice of raw, recent American history that orchestrated its chaos to brilliant and unsettling effect. "World Trade Center" is the second major studio picture to weigh in on the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It is a more limited achievement: a comfortably unsettling drama.
Both films offer visions of a country besieged and a small group of citizens caught in a claustrophobic nightmare, fighting for their lives. The similarities end there. It's as if the two directors signed a no-overlap agreement. Their films are utterly at odds in terms of focus, tone, intention--and quality.
Taken from a script by newcomer Andrea Berloff, director Stone's film aspires to be a uniter, not a divider. ("United 93"didn't try to divide audiences; it simply worked in a way that didn't fret about audience empathy or conventional rooting interests.) The visual approach of "World Trade Center," heavy on the intense close-ups and fervent in its embrace of the characters' religious and patriotic strains, flies in the face of everybody's preconceptions about what a Stone film feels like. No free-associative editing or frantically shifting film stocks here, a la "JFK" or "Natural Born Killers." Even the sound levels are relatively subdued.
This is noteworthy, given that the film relays the real-life story of two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who survive the collapse of the towers only to find themselves caught amid the steel and concrete of the remains. "World Trade Center" opens with McLoughlin waking for work at 3:29 a.m., while his wife (Maria Bello) lies in bed, awake herself, but motionless.
As McLoughlin commutes to Manhattan, Jimeno does likewise, as do so many more on a clear, sunny September morning. Once the terrorists' hijacked planes hit the towers (the filmmakers wisely choose indirection here--no frontal-assault imagery), Stone and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey take us down into the darkness where McLoughlin and Jimeno lie trapped. The rescuers become those who must be rescued. Tantalized by thoughts of a better place and, in the case of Jimeno, visions of Jesus, the men talk of escape, of hanging on and of their children and families. Stone intercuts these scenes with domestic trauma aboveground, at the homes of the McLoughlins and the Jimenos (Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jimeno's wife, Allison).
Another major character emerges, a savior: Ex-Marine Dave Karnes (played by Chicago-based Michael Shannon). Seeing the carnage on television, Karnes prays to God for guidance and leaves his job in Connecticut for Lower Manhattan and ground zero.
Like Stone's "Platoon," "World Trade Center" has the visceral stuff it takes to appeal to audiences of all political stripes. Unlike "Platoon," however, its sense of craft feels impersonal. It is a search-and-rescue mission, supplemented by routinely handled if sharply acted family drama. Bello and Gyllenhaal ring no false notes, even when the script does.
For a timely film about a small, evenly balanced group of characters in extremis, those characters haven't been vividly particularized. The writing is functional at best, often at odds with the flashbacks we see of the McLoughlins' marriage. At one point McLoughlin confesses: "Somewhere along the way, I guess we stopped looking at each other," referring to his wife, Donna. Yet most of what we see on-screen involves loving looks and knowing smiles and honeyed cliche.
The movie captures some things very well. As McLoughlin and Jimeno fend off fear, despair and panic in the rubble, the audience gets a good long look at what such literally crushing circumstances might have been like. Some physical details linger in the memory, such as Jimeno spitting out gravel and rocks in the hospital, or McLoughlin being carried out by his rescuers. Stone realizes the impact inherent in such moments, and as with "Platoon," the images trade both in realism and a more operatic sensibility.
There is, however, a Hollywood core to this docudramatic enterprise. It may be restrained for a Stone film, but "World Trade Center" trades in its share of familiar-seeming melodrama. It is so eager to stress the "courage and survival" aspects of this tale--McLoughlin and Jimeno were two of only a dozen rescued from the rubble--that in emotional terms it carries an undercurrent of patriotism bordering on war fever.
"We're gonna need some good men out there to avenge this," says Karnes, the man who located McLoughlin and Jimeno. The line is backed by a full complement of strings on the soundtrack. (To be fair, Craig Armstrong's score has its understated touches as well.) Shannon, a wonderful actor, may not have been the best choice for this character: His intensity is such that Karnes comes off a bit mad. At the end we learn Karnes went on to enlist for two tours of Iraq duty. Stone has acknowledged in interviews that he believes Karnes probably signed up for the wrong war--Afghanistan being more on-point, in terms of the actual 9/11 events, than Iraq. The film itself declines comment on the matter.
Stone claims "World Trade Center" is devoid of political content, and if you believe that, you will most likely buy into the whole of a film, full of good actors, destined for multiple Oscar nominations. If you don't believe that, you may find yourself watching "World Trade Center" at a remove. "United 93" put you in the middle of hell and made you think as well as feel. This one just makes you feel.
'World Trade Center'
Directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Andrea Berloff; cinematography by Seamus McGarvey; edited by David Brenner and Julie Monroe; production design by Jan Roelfs; music by Craig Armstrong; produced by Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Moritz Borman and Debra Hill. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language).
John McLoughlin - Nicolas Cage
Will Jimeno - Michael Pena
Allison Jimeno - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Donna McLoughlin - Maria Bello
Dominick Pezzulo - Jay Hernandez
Dave Karnes - Michael ShannonCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun