Okay, so I was wrong. No big deal. It's happened before, it'll happen again. See, I was one of those people who didn't think Oliver Stone could keep his passions in check and simply tell a straightforward, unadorned story dealing with 9/11. I'm not a big fan of his output (his patented brand of ham-fisted proselytizing isn't my cup o' tea), and even though I try to keep an open mind and give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, I still couldn't shake my preconceived notions. After having seen World Trade Center, I think I owe Ollie an apology. Seems I had forgotten that in addition to the Stone of rampant excess and posturing, there is a Stone who has a genuine gift for filmmaking, and it's the latter Stone who is responsible for this film.
After the first plane hit, Port Authority officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) were called upon to assist in the evacuation of the World Trade Center. They and their fellow officers were in the concourse between the buildings when Tower Two collapsed. Sergeant McLoughlin, who had been part of the team that handled the 1993 WTC bombing, ordered his men into an elevator shaft, knowing that this would afford them the best possible protection. Only McLoughlin and Jimeno, who were unaware both towers had been hit, would survive the destruction.
Watching the events unfold on their television screens were their families, who had no idea the two men were trapped. Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello), having already lived through a similar situation eight years earlier, did everything she could to reassure her children that John would soon be home. Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who was five months pregnant at the time, wondered how she could possibly explain to her young daughter that Will might not be coming home at all.
In Connecticut, ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who believed God was calling him to assist in the rescue efforts, left his job, spoke with his pastor, visited his barber, and then headed to New York. Using his military training, Karnes walked into the middle of Ground Zero, where several hours later he and another Marine would hear the sound of a pipe being yanked about by Will Jimeno. A rescue crew was summoned, and Jimeno and McLoughlin became numbers eighteen and nineteen of the twenty survivors pulled from the rubble.
I guess it's no real surprise that two of the best films I saw in 2006 dealt with the same subject. While it doesn't have quite the same impact as Paul Greengrass's United 93, World Trade Center is an unforgettable experience. By turns gut-wrenching and uplifting, the film packs an emotional wallop. I felt drained and shaken after watching it, but I also felt moved and hopeful. It's rare that I connect with a film on such an emotional level, and I think it's a testament to the dedication of everyone involved that the film is so powerful and affecting.
Much of the film's running time is concerned with the time John and Will spent trapped under the rubble. With only a small hole providing the faintest bit of light from the outside world, the two men were pinned down by massive amounts of debris, Will twenty feet above John, who lay on the edge of a massive drop-off (another few feet closer to the edge and he probably wouldn't have survived). They stay focused by talking to each other (the loquacious Will does most of the talking), fighting to stay awake. Cage and Peña do extraordinary work here, and it's all the more extraordinary considering how constricted they are: Pena is only visible from his arms up, while only Cage's face is visible.
Interwoven with the scenes in the hole are scenes from the outside world, with the primary focus being on the two men's wives. It seems like Bello has spent the better part of the past few years playing mothers who are faced with situations beyond their control, and I think this is arguably her best work yet. And this is inarguably the best work I've seen by Gyllenhaal. For my money, the single most moving scene in the film involves her walking through her neighborhood, going to pick up her daughter and bring her home to bed, the lights from televisions broadcasting the same footage visible in the homes around her. It's a quiet, simply moment, but its impact is staggering.
Stone and writer Andrea Berloff also use flashbacks to augment the story, and I think this is the only time they misstep. The flashbacks often struck me as being too much of a hard sell. It's not hard to gauge what the characters are thinking and feeling at any given moment, and their silences speak much louder (and more effectively) than the flashbacks ever could.
Although I can't imagine anyone would want to watch them back-to-back, World Trade Center makes a nice companion piece to United 93. Greengrass's film is about ordinary people who became symbols of hope by rising up against a force of evil, while Stone's is about men who were trained to stand up but weren't able to act in any physical way, yet managed to become symbols of hope simply by surviving. If you think of heroism as a coin, each film deals with a different face of that coin. And while they differ greatly in style and tone, both are fitting, worthy tributes to their subjects.
Stone and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey opted for a predominantly naturalistic look for the visuals (some of the flashbacks are intentionally soft), a look that is perfectly conveyed by the 1.85:1 transfer. Black levels are excellent, as are details, even in the numerous scenes in the hole.
The soundscape, with its rapidly shifting sonic qualities, is extremely important to the film's intent and impact. Fortunately, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (available in English, French, and Spanish) features crystal clear dialogue, superb low end action, and immersive surround use. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
Disc One contains the following extras:
Commentary by Oliver Stone: Stone's tone is dry, his remarks few and far between. There's some good, interesting information here, but you have to sit through an awful lot of dead air to get to it.
Commentary by Will Jimeno, Scott Strauss, John Bushing and Paddy McGee: This, on the other hand, is a great track. Jimeno, who comes across as an extremely affable guy, dominates the proceedings, while Strauss, Bushing, and McGee (three of the principal rescuers) primarily chime in during the final act of the film. The participants repeat some of the information found in the other supplements, but that doesn't really detract from the commentary's overall quality.
The Making of World Trade Center (54 minutes) is an excellent look at the film's creation. Viewable as one long documentary or in three separate sections, this covers the project from its conception right on through shooting and postproduction. Most of the principals are featured in interviews segments and production footage.
Nine Extended Deleted Scenes (18 minutes total): Several of these bits were expendable, although I think the film would have benefited from the inclusion of the extended roll call and the scene in which John and Will first think they are about to be rescued. Stone provides optional commentary for these scenes.
The following supplements (many of them featured in high def) comprise Disc Two:
Common Sacrifice (55 minutes) deals with John and Will's rescue and recovery, only this time the story is told by the people who lived it. It also goes beyond the events depicted in the film, chronicling John's lengthy rehabilitation. In addition to interviews with John and Will, this documentary features input from their wives, family members, friends, and the various medical professionals who treated them.
Building Ground Zero (25 minutes): Production Designer Jan Roelfs and his team detail the design and construction of the film's primary set. They also discuss the difficulties of shooting in the enclosed space.
Visual and Special Effects (12 minutes) covers the film's GC and practical effects.
Oliver Stone's New York (24 minutes): The director discusses his childhood in New York and how it shaped him and continues to influence him. His days in film school at NYU are also touched upon.
Q&A with Oliver Stone (13 minutes) is an excerpt from an installment of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' David Lean Lecture Series. Stone discusses his intent and hopes for the film and also expresses his opinions on several topics tangentially related to the film, including the politicization of the resulting war and the co-opting of faith in America. (If you're looking for Stone to really let loose, this is as close as you'll get on this release.)
A photo gallery features (if I counted correctly) 55 production stills.
Rounding out the extras are the theatrical trailer and four TV spots.
World Trade Center is easily one of the best films I've seen this year. Combine the quality of the film itself with a stellar technical presentation and a superb set of extras and what you get is (and here is something I never thought I would say about an Oliver Stone film) a must-own disc.