The men from the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) whose ordeal on 11 September 2001 inspired the film World Trade Center should have no complaints about this telling of their story. The words and memories of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno have been incorporated faithfully into Andrea Berloff's screenplay, right down to the small talk they exchanged while pinned beneath the rubble of the towers. Audiences, on the other hand, may be dumbfounded at how fully the events of that day have been pulped to fit cinematic conventions.
Shots of New York stirring on the morning of 9/11 carry an immediate poignancy, even before the camera starts seeking out the twin towers on the horizon. The meat-packing district bustles with brawny fellows lugging carcasses out of trucks; tired commuters squeeze into subway cars where they squint at their morning papers. McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Jimeno (Michael Peña) are beginning another shift pounding the beat in midtown Manhattan. Same old, same old - until, with a whoosh, the shadow of a low-flying plane plunges the street into darkness.
It's a daring conceit of the film's director, Oliver Stone - the only daring conceit, in fact, in the entire picture - to refrain from showing the moment of impact, limiting us to what the characters witness with their own eyes. PAPD officers are among the first on the scene. Trudging towards the towers, McLoughlin passes a woman drenched in blood; Jimeno gazes in disbelief as a figure plunges from an upper floor of the tower.
A search party volunteers to join McLoughlin in entering the towers. Within minutes of the volunteers' arrival, the groan of metal gives way to an ungodly roar, and McLoughlin and Jimeno awake to find themselves buried. For a time their chances of being discovered alive seem high, as they call out to one another to keep their spirits buoyant. But that's before the fireballs start whizzing past their ears, and yet another barrage of plummeting concrete increases the pressure on their bodies.
For as long as the camera stays immersed in the rubble, the film generates that low hum of intensity that comes when decent actors are given the space to relax into their roles. How pleasing to see the hyperactive Cage immobilised, unable to indulge in his usual bodily spasms, forced to act entirely with his face from beneath an inch of dust. And Peña, who emerged unscathed from this year's touchy-feely Crash, handles tenderly the highs and lows experienced by jittery Jimeno. His euphoria after hallucinating an image of Christ clutching a water bottle is a rare example of piercing emotion breaking through the picture's bland surface.
If only the film-makers had kept their nerve, and kept us trapped down there, we might have gained an insight into the men's suffering and survival. Instead, the tension is broken repeatedly with flashbacks to domestic scenes and cutaways to the families' vigils. The film is never remotely gruelling; it conforms so faithfully to a TV movie-of-the-week format that we could write the dialogue ourselves.
This is not to doubt, for instance, that Jimeno's young daughter Olivia really did ask her mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whether Daddy was coming home, or that McLoughlin's wife, Donna (Maria Bello), encountered a woman who was distraught at having scolded her son before he left for work at the south tower. But Stone renders the script in the idiom of middlebrow entertainment, complete with heartstring-tugging score and slow motion. In his hands, World Trade Center becomes just another disaster film that could play happily in a double bill with Earthquake. It isn't the director's firebrand sensibility that you miss, so much as some kind of governing intelligence. Viewers pining for Stone's provocative touch might just detect some scepticism in Michael Shannon's portrayal of a former marine who says, "Don't know if you folks know it yet, but this country's at war," before joining the hunt for survivors. But that's not much to chew on in a two-hour picture that simplifies rather than enhances our understanding of 9/11.
It would be nice to say that this film at least has good intentions - except that it doesn't appear to have any intentions at all.
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