Oliver Stone's trademark freneticism is scarcely visible in "World Trade Center," the second 9/11 film (after "United 93") to dramatize a true story from that day. Flashy editing, quick cuts, skewed angles and general insanity are in short supply. The film begins calmly, bursts into action, then settles again into serenity, where it mostly stays. This is a gentle, peaceful Oliver Stone, an Oliver Stone who is doing something Oliver Stone has never done before: He is being overly cautious.
Say what you will about Stone's movies -- good ones like "Platoon" or crazy trainwrecks like "Alexander" -- at least he's never boring. "World Trade Center" isn't boring either, exactly, but it is strangely ineffective emotionally. You WANT to feel something, but it's just not there.
What is there? Two men pinned under rubble, waiting for rescue and having occasional maudlin flashbacks. The men are John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), Port Authority police officers who responded, with dozens of their colleagues, to the World Trade Center shortly after the first plane hit. The film, which was written by Andrea Berloff from real survivors' accounts, begins with more characters than McLoughlin and Jimeno, mostly fellow officers, but soon narrows the focus to those two, with additional scenes of their families anxiously awaiting word at home.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello have thankless roles as Jimeno's and McLoughlin's wives, respectively. They fret admirably. Brief interludes early on with the men's fellow officers suggest the soul-stirring bravery that marked the day, as well as the very real emotions of fear and confusion that played a part, too.
And Stone proves eerily good at combining re-enactments with actual footage of the day: the burning towers visible while actors perform scripted scenes, and so forth. We feel the intensity of the moment even when McLoughlin and his crew are moving methodically and carefully to gather the equipment they need to ascend the towers and evacuate people. We sense -- though not nearly as powerfully as in "United 93" -- the true terror and panic that flooded New York that day.
Yet after a while it dawned on me that this movie has nothing to do with 9/11. The bulk of the story is McLoughlin and Jimeno trapped under tons of debris. They could just as easily be coal miners caught in a cave-in or mountain climbers buried in an avalanche. Their stories have no universal appeal beyond a basic "their wives are worried, and golly, I hope they make it out OK."
The problem, then, is that when you purport to tell a 9/11 story but in fact make a film that has little to do with the larger themes and issues of the day -- well, doesn't that cheapen it a bit?
I would argue that Stone's biggest error here is in timing. There will probably come a time when it is common to see so-called "9/11 movies" in which the specifics of the day are merely the backdrop for other kinds of stories. But Stone has made only the second movie to tackle 9/11 head-on, with an epic-scale title to boot. It's not too soon for a 9/11 movie, but it IS too soon for one that brings it up for no reason.
(Note: As reported elsewhere on the Web, I recently had a falling out with Paramount Pictures after my article describing their press junket for "World Trade Center." However, I saw the film and wrote this review -- except for a couple minor editorial fixes -- before all that unpleasantness. In other words, this is my true opinion of the film, unaffected by what happened after I saw it. Now, you are welcome not to believe me, and to believe instead that I wrote a negative review in retaliation for the falling out. It is your right as an American to believe whatever you want.)