World Trade Center
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello
Film review by David Chiu
The announcement of a major Hollywood film about the World Trade Center this one directed by Oliver Stone, raised a concern on whether the depiction of September 11, 2001 attacks, would be sensationalized, exploitive, or too soon. Five years since that tragedy is sufficient amount of time to depict on the big screen but there has been no other film other than the recent United 93 that tackled the event. Would this new film called World Trade Center, make a political statement or convey a hidden agenda that overwhelms and overlook the tragedy itself and the heroes, victims and survivors.
Remarkably, this moving film does the opposite. World Trade Center is emotionally draining but very cathartic (and, unfortunately, timely given the recent terror threat involving airplanes). There are no political references, no mention terrorist groups, why it happened, and who’s to blame. Instead, the film focuses on what happened that day, particularly the actual story of two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, who were trapped in the rubble for hours in the Trade Center. (They were the last two officers to be rescued from the site). The movie is based on the now-retired officers and their wives’ experiences from that moment.
Those who were there in New York on September 11, can remember that beautiful Tuesday morning starting out rather normally. We see both McLoughlin and Jimeno driving from their middle-class homes in New York and New Jersey, respectively, going to their jobs in New York. Both are married men with families: McLoughlin has several kids, Jimeno with one daughter and another on the way.
Even though this is an intense action-driven drama fueled by the chaotic events that transpired, World Trade Center does gives us time to absorb the main characters: Seargant McLoughlin, played with genuine complexity and intensity by Nicolas Cage, is the no-nonsense focused seargant who assigns his officers to their morning beats; Jimeno (portrayed by Michael Pena in a breakout performance) is the eager young officer first sent to do a ho-hum patrol of the bus terminal. He is about over to check out a shady character nearby until he is stopped by a tourist who needed directions. Out of nowhere comes the roaring sound of a plane passing by at a lower level than normal.
The film does not show the two airliners actually crashing into the towers but we know they’ve been hit as we see the stunned reactions of everybody watching the tragedy unfold on their TVs. McLoughlin and his men head down to the chaotic scene downtown: whitened and sometimes bloodied faces of bystanders, the hundreds of papers falling like confetti from the sky, sounds of explosions, and people jumping out of the towers.
McLoughlin assembles a small group of officers, including Jimeno, to go inside the Trade Center and help those who were trapped. None of us have ever seen inside one of the towers at the moment of collapse—in this film, the re-creation is surrealistic and disturbing. Your heart stops when you see the police officers (the fear in their eyes stays with you) run away from the incoming avalanche of debris during the collapse. The whole moment is instantaneous and absolutely terrifying.
For a majority of the film, we are with the only survivors of that small Port Authority police team, McLoughlin and Jimeno, in near total darkness underneath the tons of rubble, mangled metal and wires, and sometimes explosions. They are many feet away from each other; they talk to pass the time and shout to monitor each other’s progress. With the exception jarring rumblings, it’s a subdued and scary moment. The feeling of claustrophobia is quite evident, not to mention desperation (Jimeno grabs a pipe dripping with unknown fluid catches whatever droplets go into his mouth for hydration) And this where the film finds its humanity: Jimeno sings the theme to Starsky and Hutch; McLoughlin talks about his wife Donna and their kids and his long service as an officer.
One poignant moment is when Jimeno asks McLoughlin to relay the message on his dead radio that his wife Allison names their upcoming baby Olivia. Of course the audience recognizes it as a fruitless gesture when hope for survival is pretty much dead, but such little things also sustains purpose hope for both men. Both men have visions: McLoughlin of his wife and family; Jimeno sees Jesus with a bottle of water.
The movie shifts back and forth between the officers and their wives back home worried sick about them. Donna (Maria Bello) comforts the wife of a police officer; she in turn has to be comforted by that same friend when her own husband doesn’t return.
She is even accused by one of her sons for not caring because she wouldn’t go down to New York to find his father. Officer Jimeno’s wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gets frustrated and can’t even eat surrounded by her concerned parents and in-laws. Both actresses as the officers’ spouses convey their initial helplessness and strength quite movingly.
Using some actual news footage, Stone offers the wide ranging scope of the tragedy globally. A shot of a sweeper plowing through the streets littered with debris or the empty subway seats the day after conveys the feeling of shock and emptiness. The recreation of Ground Zero is realistic and expansive as firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers go through the rubble in the night trying to find any survivors.
And the rescue of the two officers was not a cakewalk as any other Hollywood film would try to depict it as—it was slow and fraught with danger that it almost turns the movie into a thriller of sorts: Will these two men get out of there?
World Trade Center is intelligently made nearly precise to detail and with the utmost sensitivity and respect to the victims and survivors. To director Stone’s credit, there is no agenda, smoking gun or conspiracy theory. Using a screenplay by Andrea Berloff, Stone keeps everything solely on the survival and rescue of the officers. The dialogue is not stilted or corny but voices the universal feelings of every person who experienced September 11. Though survival and love are the dominant themes that ring true, the film doesn’t sugarcoat or minimize the horrible aftermath (Scenes of injured people, posters of missing people plastered on the walls, and dejected and tired firefighters leave indelible images). The end title credits that mention the numbers of people lost makes you never forget the enormity of the event.
As the ominous 5th anniversary is approaching us, this well-rendered film is a reminder of the resiliency of the human spirit and the long road to healing.