The Internet nearly shattered when Paramount first announced the Oliver Stone project World Trade Center. Just what crazy, left-wing conspiracy theories would the director of JFK explore? And could the country stand it? Who could let this happen??? All those people can relax now. The politics of Stone's 9/11 movie lean right, if they lean any way at all. Mostly, the film sits up straight and just wants to be loved by all. There are more controversial Hallmark cards.
Which wouldn't be a problem if the movie worked on its own, inherently compelling terms. Stone, directing from a script by Andrea Berloff, focuses on the real-life stories of John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peða), two Port Authority policemen who responded to the World Trade Center attacks and were trapped in the rubble when the towers fell. Rather than trying to tell the whole story of the attacks, the film presents it through the eyes of two people who could only see a few feet in front of them.
Or at least that's how it begins. The film opens on a note of eerie normalcy, as Cage, Peða, and their colleagues attend to business as usual—helping tourists, keeping an eye on hustlers and hookers at the bus station—until the call to action arrives. Even working within the restrictions of a PG-13 rating, Stone brings fresh immediacy to the horrors of Ground Zero, and Cage and Peða use small, telling strokes to make their characters come alive. But post-collapse, Stone seems intent on trying out every sentimental idea that occurs to him. Cutting between the trapped policemen, scenes of their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) reacting to the disaster, and golden-hued flashbacks of their former lives, Stone never misses a heartstring-tugging opportunity short of putting puppies in jeopardy. It's as if doing a 9/11 project gave him license for cheap moments.
Remove the big-budget production values, grounded lead performances, and the spirit of gravitas granted by 9/11, and you'll find a TV movie-of-the-week at the heart of it all. It's an inspiring story obscured by a coat of gloss. Stylistically, this is Stone at his least excessive, but the approach still feels wrong. We all watched the news that day (and the day after, and the day after that), and that intimate connection to the raw feed and rawer emotions of the actual event makes the big-budget-spectacle presentation, with its carefully timed emotional moments and shameless Craig Armstrong score, feel phonier than usual. (It also, however accidentally, makes the visceral United 93—underrated in these pages—look better and better.) It all really happened. Why not show us how it really felt?