Called in to the World Trade Center to help evacuate survivors after the first plane hit the towers on September 11th, Port Authority cop Will Jimeno (Michael Pena, "Crash") and Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) marched into the buildings frightened at what they would find. When the towers collapsed, the two cops were trapped under 20 feet of steel and concrete, left alone to fight for their lives. Back home, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggled to maintain calm when faced with mounting questions and fears over the whereabouts of their beloved husbands.
Last spring's brilliant "United 93" was a stomach-churning, unflinching look at September 11th though a chronicle of tragedy and murder. It was devastating and unforgettable filmmaking. Oliver Stone uses an alternative path with "World Trade Center," dramatizing a singular event in the middle of all the destruction and pain to help remind the world that there was still hope at large, even in the eye of the hurricane.
Handed a much heftier budget than "United 93," Stone's "Center" eschews cinema verite for a more traditional storytelling approach. This is Stone's most direct and cleanest cut film since 1989's "Born on the Fourth of July," in addition to being his best. The button-pushing filmmaker shows noteworthy restraint all over this film, which some might chalk up to a declawing after his head-slapping disaster "Alexander," but I choose to see it as a return to classical form for Stone. He once made films about the human experience before peyote and cynicism rocketed him away to la-la land. "Center" illustrates that Stone still cares about people and remains fascinated with the thunderstorms of doubt that swirl around inside them when stared down by tragedy.
"Center" is primarily a story of hope and survival, but to set the threatening mood, Stone recreates the ash-laced panic and blaring uncertainty of the New York streets as the officers inch closer to the burning towers. Much like "United 93," it's not easy to watch the tragedy unfold on the big screen. Stone forces the audience in all the way into the buildings with frightening detail and as chunks of concrete rain from the sky like bullets, Stone augments the dread and menace of the smoldering towers by including the deafening groan of the twisting and collapsing metal, emitted from the towers like a roar from the devil's throat. It's a hellish sequence that paints a harrowing picture of disorder and dread in ways news coverage could never do.
Once the cops are trapped in their concrete prison, "Center" softens and leaves behind the bigger picture of terrorism and mass death, and narrows down to an intimate story of two men assuming demise, but praying for rescue. Superbly played with wrenching exhaustion and delirium by Pena and Cage, the death's door camaraderie between the actors is topped off with Hollywood-screenwriting heart tugging, yet the performances are authentic in their exasperation and highly-trained alertness. Stone fashions a claustrophobic nest of WTC debris to shoot around, and sustains a feeling of threat throughout the whole nightmare that the brittle surroundings will collapse on these men at any moment.
When "Center" turns itself over to the wives' story, Stone compounds the horror of the situation further as these women fight to hold themselves together in the face of loss and to prevent their families from ungluing. Stone has Bello and Gyllenhaal keep their moments of panic to a dull roar, expressing themselves through silent despair until the burden of waiting for proof of life becomes too much to contain.
Ultimately "Center" transforms into a celebration of compassion and teamwork. As the hours tick by, Stone includes sequences of rescue officials (from all over the country) and marines looking to chip in and help wherever they can. The story of Dave Karnes is featured as the marine who marched into the hazardous rubble on his own and was the first to locate Jimeno and McLoughlin. His tale of selfless honor is what "Center" truly is about. This is not an expose on the mechanics of the attack (what "United 93" at times was trying to recreate); this is about individuals that were forever altered by the madness, and the considerable efforts of those who risked their own lives to make sure more didn't perish in those senseless attacks. In a sense, it is blatant, clichéd hero worship, but Stone earns this impassioned interpretation through his care and respect behind the camera for the characters and the gravity of the situation.
"World Trade Center" does have moments of unbearable horror for more sensitive viewers, but there is a dominant mood of optimism in the middle of all the debris that is more than worth the time invested in this perfectly executed historical drama.
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