On 9/11 I went to a Brooklyn hospital to donate blood. I didn’t know what else to do – the devastation was immense and obvious, and I felt helpless. I wanted to make a difference that day, in even a small way. When I got to the hospital, I was turned away. They didn’t need blood. There were astonishingly few seriously injured who came out of the World Trade Center that day. The line seemed stark – either you made it out mostly OK or you didn’t make it out at all.
When the Towers fell the rubble was piled eight stories high. Rescue workers frantically tried to find anyone in the debris that they could. In the end only 20 people were pulled alive from the wreckage. Numbers 18 and 19 were Will Jimeno and John McCloughlin, Port Authority police who had been in the concourse beneath the buildings, trying to help. That’s the 9/11 story Oliver Stone has decided to tell.
If I hadn’t known that World Trade Center was an Oliver Stone movie, I never would have guessed it; in fact I might have ventured Ron Howard as the man behind the camera. The film is a weird moment in the master director’s filmography – a movie that doesn’t seem thematically or stylistically connected to anything he has ever done before.
The film is filled with heroes. I can’t think of one character who does anything that would even make you question them – the trapped men bravely keep each other alive, the workers bravely try to save people, the wives bravely wait for word. The one character who has even a little ambiguity is Dave Karnes, a retired Marine in Connecticut who felt called by God to go to Ground Zero and help, and who would play an almost miraculous role in the rescue of Jimeno and McLoughlin. He’s a weirdly intense guy, but in the end he’s right (and by the way, as unbelievable as his story is – it really happened).
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Oliver Stone movie populated only with heroes. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Oliver Stone movie where the moral throughline is so clear – courage and survival are the order of the day, and there’s never a question that what anyone is doing is the right thing.
I’m not criticizing the movie for being a positive portrayal of these remarkable people (although later I will be criticizing it for being standard Hollywood fare). 9/11 showed us the worst evil humans are capable of, but it also showed us the best side of very ordinary folks. That’s a wonderful and uplifting thing that should be talked about more – when the worst was happening, people were at their best. The problem is that Oliver Stone is a filmmaker who has always worked in extremes, and here he makes everything extremely good, extremely sappy, extremely emotional. Again and again the film lunges at the audience with tear-inducing piano music and gauzy flashbacks. We get it, Ollie. They’re brave.
I don’t know what place this film has in the canon of Stone. Is it the result of the beating he took on Alexander, his ambitious passion project? Did he dial everything back to 1 from 11 because he just wanted to make a movie that would earn some money at the box office? Or did he find himself going over the edge on that one and decided to scale it back, to make his next one very simple?
There are moments where you feel that Stone is in there. The film opens with the characters waking up and going to work, and when they get to the Trade Center Stone delivers some unforgettable moments, if too few. As they walk through the concourse they hear what sounds like blasts – they’re the bodies of jumpers smashing to the pavement. McLoughlin and his team of cops come to a triage center, and Stone captures the grimy exhaustion and determination of the responders on the scene. And the collapse of the first tower is done completely from the point of view of the characters in the concourse, and it’s a moment that comes painfully close to greatness, marred only by Cage’s silly slo-mo cry of “Ruuuuuuuuuun!
The scenes in the hole, where Jimeno and McLoughlin struggle to survive, range from schmaltz to horror, but the scenes with the families are almost uniformly useless. I understand the need to get out of the hole, to see the other side of the emotional equation, but these people are engaged in an activity that doesn’t lend itself to cinema – mostly sitting around tables, being distraught. This is when the movie is at its most Lifetime Sob Sister Story, and and Stone seems disconnected from these people’s lives. It’s weird because he captured the suburban family in Born on the Fourth of July so well, but in that film he wasn’t doing just a hagiography.
While the advertising might lead you to believe that Nic Cage is the star of World Trade Center, the real lead is Michael Pena as Jimeno. Cage spends a lot of the film being distant before the collapse, and then when he’s in the hole he’s constantly on the edge of consciousness. It’s an old fashioned good Cage performance, but the movie belongs to Pena, playing a much more accessible character with a surfeit of charm and relatability. McLoughlin stoically deals with the pain of his crushed legs – Jimeno is terrified in the exact way most of us would be. And he overcomes it in the way most of us hope we would.
There are moments of intense emotion in World Trade Center – I teared up more than once. It’s hard to say how much of that comes from my own personal issues and memories of the day, but I can be sure that a number of the more affecting scenes were just as affecting when I encountered them elsewhere. World Trade Center isn’t just a true story, it’s a very true story, so anyone who has read up on the events of that day – especially anyone who has read 102 Minutes (honestly the World Trade Center story Stone should have told. The chaos and uncertainty and highs and lows of human behavior in that book, which tells minute by minute what happened in the Towers between being hit by planes and falling, seems like prime Stone material) – will find much of what goes on here familiar. And the stuff that got to me when I read about it elsewhere – like McLoughlin thanking each of the men in the long line who pulled him off the Pile after spending hours and hours buried in the rubble – got me in the film. That stuff is hard to mess up.
United 93 didn’t just beat this film to theaters, it took all the wind out of World Trade Center’s sails. Paul Greengrass made a film that was unflinching, and that wasn’t a simple hagiography. That film contained the best and the worst of humans, including in the terrorists, who were treated as people. World Trade Center sometimes doesn’t even treat its people as people, but as saints undergoing their martyrdom.
I hope that this film is just a pitstop for Stone, that he still has movies that tell complex stories of morality and flawed human beings while beating the cinematic form within an inch of its life. Any director could have made World Trade Center – so why did it have to be him?