By JANE WILSON, Special Contributor | Published August 17, 2006
The poster for Oliver Stone’s latest film, “World Trade Center,” is dominated by two towers rising up against a blue sky. Between the towers stand the figures of two men, dwarfed by the immensity of the buildings. The image is a perfect representation of the film, as Stone uses the story of two men caught up in the events of Sept. 11 to illustrate the larger picture of the heartbreak and heroism that took place that day.
Based on true events, World Trade Center tells the story of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two Port Authority police officers who were sent into the towers to help with the evacuation. These two were caught when the towers fell but were ultimately rescued after surviving for hours injured and trapped in the rubble. The film also follows the men’s families as they wait to learn the fate of their loved ones. Stone ignores the politics that motivated and surrounded the attacks and instead focuses on the personal human drama. In this way he creates a film that is ultimately uplifting and hopeful.
As the film opens, the two main characters wake and go to their jobs. To them it is a normal day, but of course the audience is aware that Sept. 11, 2001, will be nothing like a normal day in New York City. As Stone shows the city waking up, he includes several shots of the city that include the twin towers. After so many images of the towers falling and missing, it is a shock to see them standing again. The action is nerve-wracking, as we see the citizens of New York going about their business, not knowing what is about to happen. As for the actual attack, Stone chooses not to depict the planes flying into the towers; instead he simply shows the shadow of the first plane as seen by Officer Jimeno as he patrols in front of the Port Authority.
After that, the characters learn about the situation in the same way everyone got the news that day—via television reports and word of mouth. This portion of the movie was perhaps the most intense, recalling memories of the attack as information and misinformation is spread and the characters learn the true extent of the attack. It is especially poignant to see the officers race toward the World Trade Center to do their duty as most others are evacuating the site. Stone’s use of slow motion adds to a sense that events are happening on a unique timetable.
Once the first tower falls, Officer Jimeno (Michael Peña) and Sergeant McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) are trapped in the elevator shaft of building 5. They are soon alone, buried under tons of rubble, unsure of how long they will be able to survive their injuries. As the hours pass, they share encouragement and stories of their families. Both take great strength from the memories of their loved ones and are determined to survive to make it back to them.
Both Cage and Peña do fine jobs, showing fear, courage and resolution in their roles. Cage, sometimes prone to focusing too much on the eccentricities of his characters, here plays down the role, showing the sergeant as an ordinary man caught in an extraordinary circumstance.
Stone intersperses the scenes with the trapped men with scenes showing how their families learn of the tragedy and cope with the uncertainty. McLoughlin’s wife, Donna (Maria Bello), and their four children and friends watch the events unfold from their suburban home. Bello’s performance is calm, measured and focused. Maggie Gyllenhaal also does an excellent job as Allison, Jimeno’s wife, who waits for news with her family. Pregnant, Allison’s thoughts often center on the daughter Jimeno might never see; in contrast to Donna, she is more emotional and reactive. In both cases, the audience learns about the personalities of the men through the reactions and situations of their families and loved ones, and these scenes, though fraught with worry, offer a respite from the scenes from the rubble.
Although Jimeno has a near-death experience in which he sees a vision of Christ offering him a bottle of water, neither men discusses or seems to rely on faith to any great extent in their crisis. Instead, they draw strength from thoughts of their families. In contrast, the character of ex-Marine Dave Karnes is obviously motivated by faith. When he hears of the World Trade Center attacks, he immediately goes to his church. He tells his pastor that he feels God is calling him to go to help. Prompted by this calling, he cuts his hair, dons his old uniform, and heads to Ground Zero. He joins the emergency workers and is ultimately the one who discovers Jimeno and McLoughlin’s location. Unfortunately, the character of Karnes is never developed fully, and he seems too simplistic and unbelievable. The message remains, however, that he was destined in some way to help these two men.
While the film focuses primarily on the time in which the men lay undiscovered, the actual rescue effort proceeds quickly. Although it is portrayed as dangerous, some of the actual difficulties are telescoped and the rescue seems to be accomplished fairly quickly. More background on the men who risked their lives to save the men would have been welcome.
As the film draws to a close, some of the characters walk by a hospital wall covered with pictures and descriptions of the missing. This serves as a reminder that similar dramas were playing out in literally thousands of households that day. By focusing on the personal stories of these two men rather than the politics and the terrorism, Stone creates a powerful example of how people came together on that day and supported each other through some of the worst events they would ever face.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.