Former enfant terrible Oliver Stone would appear to have re-embraced the American Way but World Trade Center (2006), while graced with powerful performances and a life-affirming core narrative, suffers from biased perspectives and a sluggish middle section.
Accusations of mean-spiritedness may follow – after all, Oliver Stone’s film is based on one of the very few stories of hope to come out of 9/11, that horrifying day seven years ago, when two New York Port Authority police officers were trapped under the rubble of the World Trade Center. But the remarkable story of Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and rookie Will Jimen (Michael Peña), who were two of only 20 people eventually pulled alive from the wreckage, has been blurred by Stone’s apparent desire to apologise for the anti-US tone of his previous work, such as Salvador (1986) and JFK (1991).
Sensibly keeping the by-now universally known details of the attack to a minimum (the first plane is shown as an expressionistic shadow flashing across a building, the second we hear but do not see), Stone introduces us to McLoughlin and Jimen as two men just doing their jobs – McLoughlin because he has to lead the efforts to rescue the people trapped on the upper floors, Jimen because he is brave enough to volunteer when his skipper makes the request. Thinking on his feet when Tower 1 comes down, McLoughlin drags his junior into the lift shaft (always the strongest section of a skyscraper structure) in time to save their lives. But they’re both bleeding internally, trapped under tonnes of stone. How to stay alive? Well, they have to stay awake, so they have to keep talking. Meanwhile, their distraught wives (Mario Bello as Donna McLoughlin and Maggie Gylenhaal as Allison Jimeno) have to keep it together somehow while they, and their families, fear the worst.
In fact, it’s in the women’s performances that the story really comes alive – both give credible, moving accounts of the emotional rollercoaster that so many spouses must have suffered that day, and it’s more to them that hearts and minds go out. It’s not that the male leads give bad turns, but once their essentially static situation has been emphasized, Stone and scriptwriter Andrea Berloff resort to rather hackneyed ‘Will rescuers get to them in time?’ contrivances to maintain audience interest.
By and large, they succeed, but the introduction of Marine Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who, to be fair, was pivotal in the rescue, is where the focus shifts and Stone gets his chance to thump tubs. Karnes is on a mission from God, apparently – all well and good, but do we really need to be told, seemingly with nationalistic fervour in the film’s coda, that Karnes went on to serve two tours of duty in Iraq? That’ll serve those Iraqis right for attacking New York, won’t it? But, hang on a minute…
It’s worth seeing, sure enough. But, in the final analysis, Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006) will be judged historically as the better film, no question.