The albatross around World Trade Center's neck that United 93 didn't have, however, is the people involved. Nicolas Cage is always a cause for concern. It's usually 50/50 going in what kind of performance he's going to deliver. Even scarier for many, though, was Oliver Stone. I'll admit it, when it was announced he'd be directing this film, I wondered if it was a good idea for such a hot-button director to be lensing a movie with this subject. It's a bit of an unfair reaction. Stone's anti-government leanings and penchant for conspiracy theories has been lampooned so often, the jokes no longer reflect the reality of what he does. It's like how when Dana Carvey's impression of President Bush the First became so pervasive other comedians stopped doing impressions of the President himself but instead were doing impressions of Dana Carvey doing the impression.
Well, I'm here to say that some of your fears are justified, and some are overcome. World Trade Center is a good movie, albeit a flawed one. It works for some of the reasons you were scared it wouldn't, and it fails in ways that we might expect.
First, let's cut Nicolas Cage a break. He gives a properly reserved performance in World Trade Center. Granted, for most of the movie he's buried under rubble and we can only see his face, but even in the scenes where he is walking and talking, we're getting Cage the actor and not Cage the celebrity ham. He plays John McLoughlin, the Port Authority Police sergeant who leads his men into the towers, with the graveness befitting a man in his position; yet, he also manages to show McLoughlin as a warm family man and as a human being who is losing hope in the face of a perilous situation.
Second, Oliver Stone comes through, as well. He's managed to make a film that is not about politics. There is no knee-jerk, hollow-bodied patriotism, and there are also no whacky theories or bashing of any people of any kind. What Stone has set out to do with World Trade Center is create a film about two families, about the father figures who rush into danger and the people they leave behind. It's when he maintains that focus that World Trade Center is at its best.
It's the remaining fear that trips the production up. It is a little too soon. There are some things about this kind of story that just aren't going to work yet. Stone opens with the men of the Port Authority Police getting up in the morning, going to work, having an average day; except we know it's not an average day even before the caption that tells us the date pops up. With the weight of that hanging over their every move, it doesn't matter what the actors do to make their actions seem normal. Even taking a shower carries a vital importance.
Stone doesn't do his players any favors here, either. Throughout the early part of the movie, on the way to the World Trade Center and as they enter the towers, the musical score is playing nonstop. Even when the actors are talking, it floats underneath their words. It's as if Stone wants us to have no doubt that he's serious, that this is emotional stuff he's working with. If that's not enough to sell us on it, he's also going to slow the film down at different points, because God knows, if he doesn't clumsily go into slow-mo when the evacuees are filing out of the Trade Center concourse, we might forget that something really terrible is happening.
Presumably, this is also why Stone occasionally leaves his subjects to travel elsewhere and contextualize events. Thankfully, he doesn't show the towers falling or the planes crashing into them, because that footage would definitely be unnecessary to the story. He should have realized the same thing, however, when he decided to tour the world and show scenes of people watching the events play out on television. We were all a part of that, it's not necessary, and it's one of the main times I felt Stone was playing too hard on our collective emotions.
The thing is, we all know what happened across the world, the real story is about the individuals. World Trade Center was made with the cooperation of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and their families, and it's those families and those families alone that end up being interesting. Even when we go into the lives of secondary participants, it feels like we've strayed too far. Stephen Dorff and Frank Whaley both play rescue workers, and while it's noble that Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff want to honor them with a little back story, it feels shoehorned in. Even worse is the overly intense Michael Shannon as Dave Karnes, the Marine sergeant who retired from military service before 9/11 but who suited up to go to Ground Zero and aid in the rescue. I can't speak to how accurate his portrayal was, Karnes may really be compelled that strongly by his religion and patriotism, but it comes off as heavy-handed on screen. Just because some people live their lives in heavy-handed ways doesn't mean it's right for the story you're trying to tell.
What makes these missteps so obviously wrong is how good the other stories become. The camaraderie that McLoughlin and Jimeno must maintain in order to stay alive is both tragic and touching. They are good choices for policemen to follow because their heroism wasn't the kind you can overly dramatize. They were waylaid on their way to help get people out of the towers. They didn't get a chance to leap through flames or pull anyone out of the wreckage. Their heroism was just in showing up, and when it comes down to World Trade Center's ultimate message, that's what's really important.
Equally compelling is what is happening at home, where the men's wives are trying to hold their families together. Maria Bello plays Donna McLoughlin, and after being wasted in film after film in thankless wife and girlfriend roles, she finally gets to show us how good she can be. Donna is strong and reserved, just like her husband. Their bond is clear, though, in both flashback sequences and imaginary conversations John has with her when he is fading from consciousness. It's rare to see such a believably stalwart relationship in a film these days, but when John McLoughlin tells his buddy he "married the right one," it's obvious he really does know how lucky he is.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is Allison Jimeno, five-months pregnant and somewhat less together than Donna McLoughlin. She vacillates between the belief that her husband will not be returning to her and denial that any of this is happening. Once a decision is made to do something, she immediately retracts it and takes the opposite tack. Gyllenhaal never resorts to histrionics, never telegraphs her turns. As an actress, she's in control every moment that her character is not.
Letting us get to know these people is how Oliver Stone gets an honest reaction out of his audience. Beyond the claustrophobia and anguish of the men buried beneath mountains of dust and metal and rock, it's the emotional toll of families being torn apart that strikes the right chord. Even the eventual rescue of McLoughlin and Jimeno isn't as much about the triumph of the rescue workers as it is about bringing husband and wife back together. This is their story, and it's through them that we're going to understand more about what this cataclysmic event meant to us as a people. For the most part, Stone keeps his eyes on that target, and it's what makes World Trade Center a film worth seeing. When the director's eyes drift, try to forgive it and weather through. It's an error of good intentions, of not having enough perspective and thus trying too hard to do right by everyone. Because even if it feels too soon now, the good parts of World Trade Center will at least be here when we're all a little more ready to examine them, and I think when that time comes, we'll all be glad for it.