Oliver Stone isn't one to shy away from controversy, and so there was plenty of trepidation on the part of many people when he was tapped to direct World Trade Center, among the first feature-length movies to explore the real-life horror of Sept. 11, 2001. Stone's detractors speculated early on that the director of JFK and Natural Born Killers would infuse the story of 9-11 with a radical political perspective or a hyperkinetic visual style.
Wrong on both counts. Told with restraint and sensitivity, World Trade Center recounts the real-life ordeal of Port Authority police officers Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), among only 20 people who survived the collapse of the Twin Towers. Perhaps more surprising, Stone, whose JFK presented conspiracy theories as fact, exhibits a painstaking attention to detail. Most affecting of all, however, is the film's assured storytelling. With its tale of heroic men, courageous families and the honor of work, Stone seems to be channeling the spirit of John Ford -- or, at the very least, Howard Hawks.
The approach is atypically conventional for Stone, but it's the right one -- and likely the only one he would have been allowed; the DVD's making-of featurette makes clear that the movie's producers had to appease a lot of various groups who were closely tied to the tragedy of 9-11. Besides, the miraculous survival of McLoughlin and Jimeno, who were trapped under mountains of rubble and near death by the time of their rescue, doesn't exactly cry out for embellishment.
With a few exceptions, Stone and first-time screenwriter Andrea Berloff resist the temptation to open up the narrative beyond what occurred to McLoughlin, Jimeno and their respective families. World Trade Center tells its story with elegant simplicity: Veteran officer McLoughlin leads a small team of young cops, including Jimeno, into the building to save civilians. The building pancakes -- a terrifyingly effective scene -- sparing only McLoughlin and Jimeno. But the two are crushed under slabs of concrete and twisted metal, and invisible to the eyes of rescue workers.
As night fell on the expanse of rubble, the pair were finally spotted through the help of a gung-ho ex-Marine, Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who felt drawn by God to leave his job in Connecticut and make the journey to Ground Zero. If it weren't all true, this stuff would seriously strain credulity.
To his credit, Stone lets the story unfold as it was, alternating between the plight of the trapped men and that of their respective families agonizing at home for word about their loved ones. There are moments of sentimentality and scenes that might test the boundaries of sappiness -- Jimeno, dying of thirst, has visions of Jesus Christ offering him a bottle of water -- but World Trade Center consistently earns its emotional heft. It helps, too, that the acting is uniformly superb. Cage is excellent as the stoic and taciturn McLoughlin, with Peña his match as the decidedly more verbose Jimeno. And Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal are in top form as, respectively, Donna McLoughlin and Allison Jimeno.
The two-disc package is housed in a single plastic keepcase with DVD trays on opposite sides. Disc One includes the feature film, both commentary tracks, deleted/extended scenes and previews. All remaining special features are on Disc Two.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the print transfer is tremendous, sharply defined and a fitting testament to the atmospheric cinematography of Seamus McGarvey. No noticeable defects.
The sound -- a key component of the movie's tension -- is aggressive, crisp and makes effective use of sound separation. Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. French audio is available in 2.0. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Paramount has gone all-out for this "commemorative edition" with several first-rate featurettes. Much of the credit goes to documentarian Charles Kiselyak, who has crafted the exceptional mini-documentaries included here.
The Making of World Trade Center (53:23) is a three-part featurette that provides a comprehensive soup-to-nuts look at how the film was conceived, rehearsed and shot. In interviews with cast, crew and the real-life people whose heroism forms the heart of the story, viewers get an expansive understanding of the many difficulties in getting this project off the ground. In particular, Kiselyak helps illuminate how the producers had to maneuver through the many constituencies that evolved in the wake of 9-11, from first responders to New York City officials to victims' family support groups. It is all the more astonishing when you take into account that Oliver Stone is the antithesis of a shrinking violet. Each of the featurette's three parts, incidentally, can be viewed separately.
The next featurette, A Common Sacrifice, is, in a word, extraordinary. Clocking in at nearly 55 minutes, it chronicles McLoughlin and Jimeno's ordeal, rescue and lengthy recovery. Kiselyak does a terrific job interweaving still photos, clips from the movie and extensive interviews to tell a moving and thoroughly compelling story of real-life courage and tenacity.
Two other featurettes deal with various aspects of World Trade Center, the motion picture. Building Ground Zero (25 minutes) focuses on the intricate production design necessary to recreate the horrific sights of Sept. 11, 2001. Visual and Special Effects (12 minutes) illustrates the visual tricks that were tapped by the filmmakers.
Oliver Stone's New York (24:26) is a must-see for film buffs. An extensive interview with the filmmaker about his upbringing in New York City, Kiselyak uses the occasion to delve deeper into Stone's worldview and artistic sensibilities. It's an absorbing portrait and incorporates some rarely seen clips of Stone's student-film work at New York University.
The DVD boasts two commentary tracks. The first is by the director, while the second teams Will Jimeno with three of the New York police officers instrumental in his rescue: Scott Strauss, John Busching and Paddy McGee. Stone, typically an engaging commentator, is uncharacteristically hit-or-miss here (perhaps an indication that World Trade Center is not one of his more personal efforts). He provides plenty of solid information, but audiences have to endure a fair amount of meandering and patches of dead air. Much better is the commentary with the police officers; their various reactions to the dramatization onscreen are fascinating.
Ten deleted and extended scenes come with optional commentary by Stone. Despite the director's occasional mumbling, several of the omitted scenes are worth seeing. Among the footage left out of the final cut is an episode in which McLoughlin and Jimeno heard rescuers calling out for survivors earlier in the day. Sadly, that chance for early rescue came and went. The scene probably should have stayed in the film.
The DVD includes a Q & A with Oliver Stone. Culled from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' "David Lean Lecture Series" from September of 2006, the 13-minute, four-second piece offers some illuminating insights by Stone. He is particularly forceful defending the film against charges that it espouses a certain political view by virtue of its merely existing. "We must demystify that event (9-11)," the director says. "It has been made into a political myth."
Other special features include a theatrical trailer, TV spots, a photo gallery and previews of Dreamgirls, Babel, The Last Kiss, An Inconvenient Truth and Reds.
Despite the admirable sensitivity displayed by the filmmakers, some critics admonished World Trade Center as being too restrained. It is worth pointing out that the movie conspicuously avoids showing the hijacked airliners crashing into the Twin Towers, choosing instead to capture the planes' ominous shadows spreading across the facades of nearby buildings. The absence of such iconic images tends to call attention to itself, but you can't really fault the filmmakers for erring on the side of caution. While World Trade Center does not approach the visceral brilliance of Paul Greengrass' United 93, Stone's film is masterful storytelling, nevertheless -- not something for which the director is generally renowned. This so-called "commemorative" edition further ratchets up its worth with a disc chock full of exemplary documentaries. For all that, I think this product warrants the DVD Talk Collector's Series.