On September 11, 2001, it seemed inconceivable — particularly to those living in New York City — that Hollywood would dare make a film out of such tragedy, or at least not for many years to come. But now, a mere five years later, comes the second such major release of the year.
It was with relief that we noted how well United 93 (about the hijacked flight brought down by brave passengers over Pennsylvania) avoided exploitation with its dry, documentary-style approach, and a no-name cast.
World Trade Center (Paramount) does not feel exploitative either, but with its ad campaign showing the twin towers looming large over its two protagonists, and director Oliver Stone's reputation for epic stories, some may be disappointed by the narrow focus here.
For at heart, this is a true-life rescue narrative, resembling, in its essentials, many we've seen before. The events depicted might just as easily be happening in, say, a Pennsylvania coal mine.
The film starts with Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) of New York's Port Authority Police Department rousing himself at 3:30 a.m. for his commute to the city. We also see his colleague, Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and others coming to the city on what is presumed just another ordinary day.
When the World Trade Center is attacked, they are among the numberless police and fire personnel that rushed to the scene. John, Will and a few other brave police volunteers prepare to enter the building for rescue work, but seemingly within minutes, they are trapped under the rubble beneath the concourse of two of the towers, unable to see the other, but at least able to communicate. A third colleague, Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez), only survives a short while, at one point contemplating suicide, gun in hand, but shoots in the air instead.
The film, from this point, shuttles back and forth between close-ups of the men's faces, in their darkened prison, trying to stay awake, as they know to succumb to sleep would be fatal, while we see their suburban wives, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Donna (Maria Bello), frantic with worry, and later, intrepid good Samaritans — most especially ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who searches for survivors with religious fervor, and a handful of Emergency Service Unit officers and paramedics (Stephen Dorff, Stoney Westmoreland and Frank Whaley) — join the rescue effort. Toward the end, Karnes expresses a desire for revenge, one of the only statements in the film that could be construed as political.
Cage gives a totally committed performance and manages to subjugate his movie-star persona, while Pena is equally impressive. Gyllenhaal and Bello are a tad less successful. On the whole, though, everyone does a conscientious job playing “ordinary,” even at the expense of some drama.
There are some spiritual elements of note. In his delirium, Will sees several shadowy visions of Jesus throughout the ordeal, and at one point they poignantly recite the Lord's Prayer.
To his credit, Stone avoids sensationalism. There's really just one shot of the building after it's been hit, with a big gaping hole in its side. Visually, the film is, by its very nature, more than a little static.
Nonetheless, Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff have given us an inspiring picture of bravery, fortitude and sacrifice in the face of enormous adversity, and whatever the film's shortcomings, that's undeniably a story worth the telling.
This film contains some intense scenes of peril and suffering, a few profane and crude words uttered under extreme circumstances, injured victims, some bleeding and a brief but disturbing image of the towers with a long shot of a falling body, which may preclude viewing by younger adolescents. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
(This review appears courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting.)