Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” is the second in what will undoubtedly be a long line of box-office films about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The first of those films, “United ·93,” was an ensemble piece, with no single standout character, no back stories, no celebrity actors, and several real:’life air controllers reenacting the events they experienced that day. The result was a taut, real-time documentary, portraying the terror of the passengers but ending just before the plane crashed.
By contrast, “World Trade Center” is a more intimate look at the event, following the story of two Port Authority police officers, John McLough- lin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who were trapped in the elevator shaft of the shopping concourse between the two towers when the first tower collapsed. Watching the despair of the doomed passengers on “United 93” was horrifying, but watch- ing these policemen become buried in the rubble of the collapsing towers was almost unbearable. I’ve walked out of films in the past that were simply too vulgar or too dumb to endure,.but I have never before felt the panic I did in this theater, wanting to get out of my seat and away from the emotions I was experiencing. There may indeed be some fates worse than death, and being buried alive is one of them.
One reason for my visceral reaction is that the memories of that day are still fresh. Our family had just arrived in New York five days earlier. All day long we heard fire engines racing down Broadway, right outside the house, and all night we heard the military jets and helicopters overhead. We could see the smoke billowing from the towers when we walked down to the Hudson River. It was a day of confusion and crisis that no one will forget.
Some critics and reviewers have billed “World Trade Center” as a “feel good” movie with a happy ending, simply because it ends in a rescue. But the ending is far from happy. It comes as a relief, yes, and with an overwhelming respect for the men and women who risked their lives to search for survivors. Thousands of people were evacuated that day, and 20 were rescued from the rubble. But 2,749 people died in the attack, and hundreds more suffered terrible injuries. Stone never loses sight of that grim fact, even while demonstrating the joy of two families.
A friend of mine, a doctor, rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital that da)’, just a few blocks from the towers, anticipating a long grueling week of treating survivors. The more gruesome reality is that he had very little to do. In a scene reminiscent of the song “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” in “Les Miserables,” Stone films an empty commuter train at the end of the movie to emphasize the enormity of the losses.
Stone virtually ignores the official organized rescue efforts in order to focus on the two trapped men and their families’ vigils. He highlights two unofficial rescuers, one a former Marine and the other a former paramedic. Both seem to have slid off track in their lives, but participating in the rescue helped them regain their focus and self-respect. If there is a happy ending at all, it is in the connectedness, compassion, and good will that erupted in the aftermath of the attack. As John McLoughlin explains, “We are people taking care of each other because it’s the right thing to do.”
Castigated in the past for playing loose with the facts and for his heavy-handed politics in such films as “JFK” and “Nixon,” Stone leaves politics out of this one. He tells his story the way. it happened, using as his consultants the people to whom it happened. Even when demonstrating the confusion and conflicting reports that plagued the initial rescue efforts, he casts no
I have never before felt the panic I did in this theater, wanting to get out of my seat and away from the emotions I was experiencing.
blame. Some may consider his silence itself to be political, but I consider it respectful. The result is a tight, emotional, engrossing film that feels accurate, regardless of how you may feel about who or what caused the attack and how it should have been handled afterward. Painful to see, it is nevertheless worth seeing.