Oliver Stone's 'Trade Center' Is Two Stories Short

Nicolas Cage plays Port Authority police officer John McLoughlin, trapped in the rubble on Sept. 11, 2001.
Nicolas Cage plays Port Authority police officer John McLoughlin, trapped in the rubble on Sept. 11, 2001. (By Francois Duhamel -- Paramount Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

When the movies revisit tragedy of grand scale, a viewer's underlying hope is to learn something new and illuminating beyond the immediate story. In a film about two policemen trapped under the collapsed World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, for example, one wants it to go further than chronicle their anguish. It should ask: What did they learn under that bone-crushing steel and concrete? How was the experience for their loved ones, who waited desperately for word of their survival as the world looked on? What was it like to be an American during that time -- or a human being? How do we respond to tragedy?

"World Trade Center," Oliver Stone's film about Port Authority officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (played, respectively, by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña), is long on veneration for its subjects and scrupulous in portraying the details, big and small, of what unfolded that day. But it shortchanges audiences when it comes to dramatic revelations that could have resonated on a deeper level. It telegraphs its emotions loud and clear, but somehow they don't reach us.

Stone spends his directorial energies grappling with two purposes -- to express reverence for the two men's plight while trying to create a crowd-pleasing story of heroism -- but doesn't wring out anything more significant than the literal portrayal of the men's ordeal. That spare approach may have been Stone's intention, but it doesn't necessarily make for a satisfying, nuanced film experience.

The story has a basic design flaw: The two officers are portrayed as heroes -- and of course they are, as they courageously rush into the fray -- but soon they are cocooned in the rubble, essentially helpless, for the rest of the film. (Jimeno was trapped for 13 hours; McLoughlin for 21.) Other films that portray modern heroes against a backdrop of grand-scale horror -- "Schindler's List," "Hotel Rwanda" and others -- are effective because we spend the film watching them in heroic action.

Stone, who has never been bashful about rewriting American history with such impressionistic movies as "JFK," "Nixon" and "Platoon," mostly relies upon the reductive shorthand of made-for-television docudrama. Indeed, the film feels decidedly small-screen, bar a couple of scenes, in large part because the characters feel stock rather than uniquely drawn. Screenwriter Andrea Berloff's poor hand effectively chokes director and performer alike.

The filmmakers have omitted a wider context -- something as conspicuous by its absence as the towers themselves. Five years on, most of us understand that day as the opening chapter of a continuing, agonizing chronicle. We crave perspective--even from a movie that specifically limits itself to one claustrophobic corner of the story. Why reprise this story without the hindsight of Afghanistan, Iraq, Madrid and London? One of the only allusions to the post-9/11 world is a Marine's passing comment that we should avenge ourselves -- which feels oddly ironic, given our failure to capture Osama bin Laden. And the filmmakers' attempts at establishing a wider canvas amount to a quick sequence around the world of people of all races, hues and faiths following the events on live television, more a statement about CNN's Nielsen ratings than a journey beyond the officers' experiences.

Audiences looking for a no-fuss recitation of what happened to McLoughlin and Jimeno, however, will find the movie they seek. Cage and Peña are believable in their roles. And Stone's trademark stylistics make an effective first act: As Jimeno patrols the Port Authority bus station, the shadow of the first plane darkens a nearby building, and Jimeno looks up with prescient dread, as if the Devil himself just passed over Manhattan. And seconds after the first tower has toppled and the ground beneath the audience seems to rock, a dazzling whiteness, attended by silence, floods the theater. But then the movie's problems really begin.

"World Trade Center," which Berloff based on the firsthand accounts of McLoughlin, Jimeno and their wives, begins that morning when the two officers and their colleagues have just started the day's work, and the first plane strikes the North Tower. They reach the World Trade Center concourse just as the second plane hits -- and are forced to retreat into an elevator shaft when tons of debris rains upon them.

It's an impasse all around: Everyone's pinned down by the cliches of half-baked poignancy. McLoughlin communicates with his wife, Donna (Maria Bello), through flashbacks and reveries, and reassesses his commitment to their marriage, but the exchanges don't rise above hollow recitations we've heard in movies before. Jimeno, already a man of faith, has visions of Christ carrying a vessel of water (a rusty pipe, barely within reach, is Jimeno's only potential source). Some viewers may be moved by the backlit special-effects Jesus hovering before him; others will find the image distractingly hokey. Meanwhile, Donna and a pregnant Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) wait by the phone, bicker a little with their families, berate the Port Authority for its frustratingly few tidbits of information, and try to explain what is happening to their bewildered children.

It's up to the filmmaker to render familiar scenes like these in original ways. In "United 93," about the doomed plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, writer-director Paul Greengrass avoided the cliches of the airborne disaster movie by making you feel you were there: He filmed his actors with multiple hand-held cameras and in sustained takes.

In "World Trade Center," the movie's attempts to make the story feel specific and personal fail miserably. Before 9/11, Allison and Willie had been arguing over what to name their daughter; he wanted Alyssa, she wanted Olivia. Not surprisingly, during the tragedy, each decides to defer to the other's wishes. The idea, of course, is to show how the mundane can become significant in the face of enormous events, but it's such an obvious tug at the heartstrings that the impact is muted. Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), the Marine who eventually finds the policemen, is portrayed as a single-minded patriot, rather than a three-dimensional being who loves his country.

Stone and Berloff depict the remains of the concourse as a symbolic hell: The men are trapped under slabs of stone in semi-darkness; isolated fires spontaneously erupt. The world of the living is represented by a sliver of skylight 20 feet above them. And it seems McLoughlin and Jimeno will have to undergo spiritual renewal long before they hear the sound of rescuers.

Berloff and Stone are reaching for myth, but failing to follow the rules of classic storytelling. "The Odyssey" spends time with Penelope, the soldier's wife who waits two decades for her husband's return, but it is mainly about the wanderings and heroics of Odysseus. In "World Trade Center," that balance between home and hero is off-kilter. We spend too much time -- with too little dramatic yield -- among the families. The fact that the officers' families aren't fleshed out through deft, original storytelling leaves us only feeling reflexive pity rather than being genuinely moved.

As McLoughlin and Jimeno hope against hope for someone to darken that skylight, we hope for enlightenment ourselves -- not out of callousness for their plight but for the film this might have been.

World Trade Center (125 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for emotional content, disturbing images and profanity.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company