When Paul Greengrass' 9/11-inspired film United 97 hit theaters earlier this year, many moviegoers asked the question, “Are we ready for this?” People wondered if, as a nation, we were ready to confront that tragic day head-on. Given the relatively positive response the film received, the answer seems to be, “Maybe.” But now comes Oliver Stone’s high-profile tackling of that delicate day, World Trade Center. And, again, the question is being raised: “Are we ready for this?” Having seen and digested the film, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that’s the wrong question to be asking.
Having declared war on seemingly half the world as a result of 9/11, I think we can handle a little movie. What people should instead be concerned about is, “Why tell this story?” We all know what happened that day. We saw it repeated endlessly, numbingly on the evening news for days, months, years. What can a movie impart that reality did not? It's a valid question. One for which Mr. Stone has provided an elegantly disarming answer.
When King of Conspiracy Theories Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon, The Doors) announced plans to shoot a movie about 9/11, detractors assumed he would dig into the radical tales of government corruption and cover-up that continue to shadow that day. Bill O'Reilly was undoubtedly sharpening his knives for a vitriolic attack on the obviously anti-American filmmaker. I dare say, though, Mr. Stone will surprise a lot of people with his evenhanded, polemic-free, mom-and-apple-pie-approved finished product.
Developed in close conjunction with the very people who were there that day, the film concentrates on two real-life New York City Port Authority police officers, Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena, hot off Crash). As word comes out of a fire at the World Trade Center, McLoughlin, Jimeno and their fellow officers rush to the scene. It is chaos. Rumors swirl. Did a plane really crash into the tower? Has Israel been nuked? Ignoring the whys and wherefores, these first responders rush into the concourse of the Twin Towers looking to affect a rescue of those trapped in the upper stories. Almost immediately, the building collapses, trapping McLoughlin and Jimeno under several hundred tons of rubble.
The grim, tension-filled disaster flick spends most of its time stuck in the claustrophobic, terrifyingly realistic confines of Ground Zero. McLoughlin and Jimeno have no idea what has happened. They know nothing about terrorists or news reports and have no idea that one of the world’s landmark buildings has been destroyed. All they know is that they are trapped and wounded. Outside this dusty hellscape, we see not the swarming reporters, not the shocked masses of Americans, not the slow but resolute response of our president. We see, instead, the faces of the wives whose husbands have failed to return home. Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) must endure a physical and emotional trial at times greater than the one their husbands are struggling to survive.
What becomes apparent in this immediately riveting narrative is that Oliver Stone has stripped away even the slightest hint of politics. Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative: None of those terms meant anything on that day. Stone has not chosen to tell this tale because it denigrates the war, or because it supports the president, or for any other selfish, dogmatic reason. This moving and deeply personal tale takes us back to 9/11 not to wallow in the trauma of that day, but to remind us that it was originally a human story and not a tale of governments, occupying forces and insurgents. Stone has found the metaphor in this mass of absolute truth. World Trade Center could have been about any disaster and been a damnably effective drama. But once this nail-biting film has come to its heart-swelling conclusion, we are left with the knowledge that it was not just any disaster: It was our disaster.
What was so hard to grasp on that September day five years ago was the scale of it all. It was enormous. It was, in fact, the defining moment in many Americans’ lives. With the number of deaths, the amount of destruction and the still-snowballing violence and political division that day has caused, it's always been hard to put a face on 9/11. World Trade Center gives us several.
It would be easy (and probably accurate) to say that World Trade Center will win a lot of Academy Awards. The acting, the directing and the storytelling are all impeccable. But such accolades almost seem crass in light of the film’s true mission. I suspect it is the inspirational humanity of this simple tale about monumental destruction, incalculable death and unstoppable hope that will linger most in the memory of filmgoers.