A surprising Stone in a pile of rubbleI know I'm not the only person who groaned when Oliver Stone announced he would direct a film based on the fall of the twin towers on Sept. 11. An exploitative cinematic drama, especially from Stone, would have epitomized everything that's wrong with Hollywood.
But the result, “World Trade Center,” is a suprise and reminds us that Hollywood is also capable, if rarely, of honest high drama that confronts a national tragedy and reaffirms the resilience of the human spirit. And the key to why “World Trade Center” ultimately works as a drama isn't in what Stone filmed but in what he's left out.
What would become “9/11 fatigue” began on that same day. The images of the second plane crash and of the towers falling, shot from almost every angle possible, ran almost nonstop for those first 24 hours. Repetition worsened the emotional impact of the tragedy.
In the years since, whenever those few minutes of footage have appeared sorrow, anger and controversy have come with them. Some say disingenuous exploitation of 9/11 has catapulted politicians into office and the American military into Iraq. Cynicism and disappointment have replaced the unity and unselfishness of that day. Now sufferers from this “fatigue” wish that footage would just go away.
So the two things Stone leaves out are very telling. The first is the iconic exterior shot of the towers falling. The second is politics. The result is a story that both recalls the courageous human reaction to 9/11 and tells a personal story of survival that, in Stone's words, “could be about a coal mine in Korea; it could be about a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a landslide, an eathquake in Pakistan or a bombing in London or Madrid.” In “World Trade Center,” a normal day for a contingent of Port Authority police is interrupted by the attack, and they set out as “first responders” to help evacuate survivors. But before they can start up the stairs, the concourse between the towers collapses on them, killing all but two: Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage). The story becomes their struggle to stay alive long enough to be rescued, and of the suffering, love and helplessness of their imperfect families. These subjective tales personalize the tragedy.
Perhaps the most interesting and enigmatic character is “the marine” (Michael Shannon), a retired military man from Connecticut who hears a call from God to go to Ground Zero and rescue survivors, no matter the dangers or difficulties. This warrior is treated with refreshing respect. He may not have rocket-scientist intelligence ― but when the marine sits in a barbershop, having his hair shaved off, steeling himself for once again facing life-threatening hazards, the film seems to suggest that this kind of courage to take action when others will not is a brand of intelligence undervalued in modern society.
Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin were two of only 20 survivors rescued from the rubble of the twin towers. And in this run-up to yet another bitter U.S. Congressional election, “World Trade Center” is a valuable reminder of the ability of Americans to unite against adversity ― and of the ability of all human beings to survive.
by Ben Applegate