Movie Review
World Trade Center
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal

it was an incredible amount of rubble, hundreds of feet high and surrounded by a perpetual, impermeable cloud of dust. In fact, this really couldn’t be called rubble: Rubble is something temporary—inconvenient but nothing more. Rubble is dirt, pebbles—rocks at the most; you brush it off, you move on. It isn’t supposed to take up entire city blocks, require hundreds of truckloads and several long months to clear out and, most certainly, it isn’t supposed to be a fatal blanket over thousands of people.

But then, a lot of things were as they weren’t supposed to be on September 11, 2001.

We all remember where we were on that day, exactly what we were doing when the news broke. And then of course, the rush began. There was so much going on—so many buildings to evacuate, so many planes to ground and so much news to absorb. One— no both—of the World Trade Center towers had been hit, a missile had hit the Pentagon, there was a car-bomb at the White House, and a rogue plane still in the air. It was the damn Soviets that did it—no, it was China, or maybe the Middle-Eastern terrorists. Well, whoever, it was, they’d be dealt with soon enough. Such a large scale attack, here. Somehow it didn’t seem possible. America had been hit and clearly a war had begun.

But there was no war in that rubble at ground zero, that crumbled edifice that once had stretched further towards the heavens than almost any other structure in the world. There was no news of the “firm resolve” President Bush had promised, no inklings even of an impending attack on a rural world thousands of miles to the east. There were only hundreds of people, most already dead, but a handful still breathing, still struggling to lift the ever-growing burden of death off their chests. While America mourned the lost and prepared to avenge them, two police officers, pinned in the depths of the rubble, continued their struggle beyond any conceivable point of survival.

They were Sergeant John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno of the Port Authority Police Department, and theirs is the story depicted in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. As first responders to the Trade Center after the initial plane hit, the PAPD, along with New York City police officers and fire fighters went in to evacuate the towers. McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and his team get called down because of his experience in evacuating the Trade Center after it was attacked in 1993. Knowing they’ll be of little use if they go up unprepared, McLoughlin first gathers the proper equipment for his team, everything from breathing masks to helmets. Just as they’re headed up, however, the first tower collapses, pinning the team under perhaps the largest pile of debris the world had ever seen.

Most of them die, but three survive. One, Dominick Pezzulo is able wriggle himself free and struggles then to free Jimeno (Michael Pena). But then the second tower collapses, sending death’s unlikely deliverance deeper into the rubble and crushing Pezzulo to death. But Jimeno and McLoughlin, miraculously live, thousands of pounds keeping them from escape.

Stone, best known for his masterful grasp on chaotic action (Platoon) and brash political conspiracies (JFK), finds uncanny subtlety in this film (surprising, given that the source material lends itself easily to audacious, insolent filmmaking). But while it’s based on those dastardly attacks, World Trade Center isn’t about September 11 or its aftermath. It is simply a powerful tribute to the human spirit and its resilience under fire. The film would have worked had it simply told the story of that day, as did the recently released United 93, but it soars because it embodies the triumph that ultimately won out. America had been hit, but its fighting spirit lingered. Thousands had died and thousands more would die in the coming years, but in that moment, in that immense pile of concrete, glass, and rocks was found something more than death: the humanity to overcome all odds.

Jimeno and especially McLoughlin could have easily given up. They were buried too deep, night had fallen, and the search had already been called off. If they had allowed themselves to fall asleep, it could have all been over for them, their pain would be gone. But they persevered; in that tiny pocket of life, in an ocean of death, lay two men who refused to give up the humanity that caused them so much pain, but ultimately sustained them. The film’s depiction of the two men’s berths, deep in a chasm of twisted metal and jagged rock, is hauntingly realistic. Cage’s trademark low-key, minimal-reaction portrayal is riveting; he plays the trapped Sergeant with enough casual humility to project the inflictions of selflessness the man suffered even at his darkest hour. It’s through Jimeno that both men see their entire lives flash before them. He starts the conversation and keeps it going, discussing everything from Starsky and Hutch to his personal dreams. They discuss their wives, children, and families with just enough fear, but also resolve. The portrayal, though suffocated indelibly by its simplicity and predictability, is nevertheless touching, the last ruminations of those mortally ensnared while attempting to save others.

As Jimeno and McLoughlin lie motionless in their hollow, hope slowly fading, we meet their families. Confusion, delusion, and fear lingered in thousands of households that day and it was no better even in those 20 households that would eventually receive good news. The officers’ wives cry and pray, their children fall into restless sleep and relatives brave a solemn face, expecting the worst but dismissing any mention of it. The film conveys the families’ feelings of helplessness with uncanny precision; so real they seem that hardly a dry eye will leave the theater. But this is one of the few films where that’s how it should be. Any film about a tragedy is sad, but World Trade Center is about our tragedy and thus conveys a sadness unmatched in all but a handful of films. No one goes to a movie to cry, but we do go to feel. Films often touch us but rarely come close to filling and overwhelming our emotional capacity like real life. This is one of those rare films.

There will come a time for Hollywood to question America’s response to this tragedy, to judge the morality of subsequent wars and indict and enshrine using the knowledge only the passage of time can bring. But before we can question, judge, or even truly understand, we must remember and accept. World Trade Center, like United 93, is simply a literal translation of real events to the screen, meant not to teach but only to remind. It is powerful not because it portrays that infamous day, but because it is that day—all that was destroyed, defeated and lost, but also that which endured. September 11 was a tragedy not for its nearly 3,000 deaths, but for one life lost 3,000 times over. In a tragedy so vast, it’s difficult to appreciate what a number like 2,783 deaths actually means, but by showing the immense suffering of these two men in that incomprehensibly vast pile of rubble, Stone’s film brings us as close as possible to bearing a complete understanding of the tragedy. And it will always take tears to truly understand that day, to permeate the cloud of dust and rubble, and envision the thousands who lie within it.

World Trade Center is playing in theatres across the country.

By: Imran J. Syed
Published on: 2006-08-14
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