Never exactly a timid sort of filmmaker, even Oliver Stone must have felt like he was walking into a no-win situation in making World Trade Center. Coming off the critical and commercial drubbing of his (underrated, as far as I'm concerned) historical epic Alexander, the cantankerous director wasn't exactly in Hollywood's good graces, and attaching his name to this particular project seemed like a move designed to upset just about everyone. The event itself still a raw, open wound in the American consciousness, putting the notoriously heavy-handed Lefty in charge of a movie about 9/11 certainly raised the hackles of the 50% of the public on the other side of the political spectrum. On the other hand, the film's trailers were off-putting for even Stone's own fans, looking distinctly like he'd sold out his values to play nice with Hollywood, churning out a feel-good "triumph of the human spirit" glorified TV Movie of the Week. However, the finished product turned out to be not quite what anyone expected of it. The movie didn't win over everyone, but that it could be released to favorable reviews and respectable box office business surprised many, and stands as a testament to the director's talent.
Recounting the true story of officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, the film stars Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña as two NYC Transit Authority cops who, on that fateful morning in 2001, walked into the World Trade Center to help evacuate the building and were almost instantly trapped under debris from the falling towers. Neither of them quite understanding the enormity of what had happened (they both assumed that only the shopping concourse had collapsed), the two men remained crushed and unable to move for a full day before rescuers eventually discovered them, two of only a small handful of survivors to be pulled from the wreckage. In the meantime, we also witness the agony of their families waiting for news and expecting the worst.
I admit that when I first saw trailers for the movie I had pretty low hopes for it. Like many, I felt a little uneasy about Hollywood exploiting such a tragedy so soon after it happened. I envisioned the film as an overblown Irwin Allen disaster picture filled with romanticized images of heroic police and firefighters pulling victims from the building flames in slow motion while a syrupy John Williams-esque score swelled on the soundtrack. Promotional clips of one of the cops writing a love note to his wife while the other asked him "Can you still see the light?" really just put a knot in my stomach.
To my great relief, World Trade Center is not that sort of movie at all. The film is a restrained, even-handed reenactment of the single most important event of most of our lifetimes. It's emotional without being maudlin, and respectful without turning sanctimonious. Although the director depicts the bravery of the rescue workers on that day, he doesn't overplay it. These men were heroes simply for having the courage to walk into the building, but never actually had the chance to save anyone. They were trapped before they could even get off the ground floor. Stone also resists the temptation to force any great political messages, focusing instead on capturing that specific moment in time when all of America awoke to the realization that their world had just instantly, starkly changed, without anyone comprehending how or why it had happened.
The movie features a simply amazing recreation of New York City before, during, and immediately after the disaster. The computer-generated towers look frighteningly real from every perspective. Stone wisely chose not to show either the plane crashes or the building collapse directly, presenting them as most of us lived through the event, hearing about it from second-hand sources or watching the distanced replay on the television news. His characters struggle with the confusion, frustration, and profound sense of helplessness that we all faced that day, desperately demanding information that wouldn't be adequately collected for quite some time. They voice the indignant outrage of a nation against "them" and "those bastards", with only the vaguest sense of what they're actually referring to. Didn't we all do the same? Aren't we still?
As a movie, World Trade Center really could have been a travesty, dishonoring the memories of those who died by exploiting their losses into a preachy diatribe for the director's political views. Fortunately, that never happens. Nor does it go the opposite route, selling out a tragedy for the sake of shallow Hollywood melodrama (witness Pearl Harbor for example). Is it a masterpiece, or the definitive telling of the 9/11 story? Probably not, but World Trade Center is a fine, worthy drama and probably the best movie that could be made at this time about that day the world will never forget.
The HD DVD:
World Trade Center debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. A comparable Blu-ray edition was also released simultaneously.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The World Trade Center HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame with negligible impact to the composition. Although Oliver Stone shoots most of his movies for a wider 2.35:1 ratio, the narrower framing in this case helps to emphasize the height of the towers and the claustrophobic tension inside the wreckage.
This is an excellent transfer, sharp and detailed with vibrantly rich colors. A good portion of the movie takes place in darkness, and those scenes have solid black levels and good shadow detail. The daylight scenes really jump off the screen with a nice sense of depth. No edge enhancement artifacts are visible. The film has very little grain, and no video noise.
If I'm going to nit-pick, I noticed a slight bit of moiré in a couple of the CGI shots of the towers, and there's a touch of color banding during Jimeno's dream about Jesus. In all other respects this is first rate work.
The World Trade Center HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. The sound mix makes effective use of surround envelopment, both with aggressive activity during the major disaster set-piece and subtle ambience in other scenes. The creaking and groaning of the building after the crash are particularly eerie. Of course, the collapse of the towers offers plenty of bass. I wasn't necessarily as overwhelmed by the audio in that scene as I was expecting to be, but honestly I may just not have a big enough subwoofer to fully take advantage of it. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure of it. This is a very good soundtrack that's hard to fault.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
Alternate language tracks - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition, however most are presented in High Definition video with VC-1 compression. The deleted scenes, Q&A session, and TV spots are encoded in the usual Standard Definition using MPEG2.
All of the supplements from the 2-Disc Commemorative Edition DVD have carried over. The commentaries and deleted scenes are found on Disc 1 with the movie, while everything else is on Disc 2.
- Audio Commentary by Oliver Stone - The director delivers an understated, respectful discussion of the making of the film. Topics include the technical challenges as well as his struggle to remain accurate to the true story. The talk is a little dry and has some significant gaps, but is a worthwhile listen.
- Audio Commentary by Will Jimeno, Scott Strauss, John Busching, and Paddy McGee - The highlight of the disc is this cogent reminiscence of the story by the real men who lived through it. It's touching, emotional, and a must-listen.
- Deleted/Extended Scenes (18 min., SD) – Nine scenes are offered with optional commentary by Stone. Most are small character moments that wouldn't have either helped or hurt the finished film.
- The Making of World Trade Center (54 min., HD) – An excellent documentary featuring interviews with Stone, the movie's producers, and the real Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin. Discussed are the motivations behind producing the film, the attention to accurately capturing the details of the event, and the technical challenges of shooting in New York and Los Angeles. This piece gives a greater appreciation for the movie's achievement.
- Common Sacrifice (54 min., HD) – Another terrific documentary, this one allowing the real men and their families to recount their own stories. The program covers not only the events depicted in the film, but the men's injuries (some graphic footage is shown) and difficult recoveries.
- Building Ground Zero (25 min., HD) – A fascinating look at the production design, both the CGI elements and physical sets.
- Visual and Special Effects (12 min., HD) – An examination of the amazing digital technology that allowed for such a convincing recreation of the World Trade Center and its surrounding area.
- Oliver Stone's New York (24 min., HD) – The director takes us on a walking tour of the area where he grew up. He discusses his very un-romanticized mixed feelings about the city, his youth, Vietnam experiences, and development as a filmmaker. The talk is somewhat rambling and disorganized, but interesting.
- Q&A with Oliver Stone (13 min., SD) – An excerpt from the BAFTA David Lean Lecture Series in which Stone's real political views finally begin to emerge.
- Theatrical Trailer (3 min., HD).
- TV Spots (3 min., SD) – Five television commercials.
World Trade Center is a surprisingly good movie that could have gone very wrong if handled any differently. The HD DVD has excellent picture and sound, as well as a terrific assortment of worthwhile bonus features mostly offered in High Definition. How could this not come highly recommended?
Alexander - Director's Cut (DVD)
Alexander Revisited - The Final Cut (DVD)
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution – DVDTalk's HD Column
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player