It hasn’t taken long for the events of September 11, 2001 to make it to the silver screen. Universal released United 93 several months back to tremendous critical praise. That film is unseen by me but I will admit to being turned off by a supposedly factual movie being made based on events that, in reality, we know very little about. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center focuses on events we do know about, all because our heroes, John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena), survived over fourteen hours of agony (not to mention subsequent surgeries and rehab) while buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center on that fateful day.
It is easy to call into question the choice of Oliver Stone to direct this film. Stone has the reputation of being a conspiracy hound, and I’m sure many viewers will enter the screening room simply anticipating wild theories to permeate the screen. Nothing of the kind happens, as Stone tells the story by the book. But what is crucial to understand is that just because a film is based on a recent event that turned the world upside down does not automatically mean it is good.
That’s not to take anything away from McLoughlin and Jimeno’s story. They were in a living hell physically and mentally for what must have seemed like a thousand eternities. We have all seen the images of the two towers collapsing on television, but Stone really takes us inside and taps into primal fears of claustrophobia and virtually incomprehensible terror. We are informed in the closing credits that McLoughlin and Jimeno were two of only twenty survivors pulled from the World Trade Center rubble.
The issue is with the storytelling. We all know that seeing this film will be an emotional experience as we relive a day that we’d all rather not. The very existence of the story is agonizing enough, but Stone chooses to beat us over the head with sensibility sledgehammer over and over throughout. We have repeated flashbacks of Jimeno and his wife, Allison (Gyllenhaal), cuddling in bed with the soft lens set to extreme and McLoughlin and his wife, Donna (Bello), celebrating the news that they are about to have another child. Fair enough, but Stone uses it as a tool to manipulate our emotions so that he can take us back to depths of hell and have something else go wrong. Worse yet, completely inappropriate comedy is attempted and the result is uncomfortable silence.
The performances are very solid, with Michael Pena stealing the thunder from Nicolas Cage as Jimeno. His portrayal is utterly realistic and at times haunting. Cage fares well, although he seems a bit robotic for a man who, under any other conditions, was facing eminent death. The supporting performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello are equally effective.
You probably know by now whether or not you are mentally ready for this film. If you are you’re in for a roller coaster ride. There’s no questioning the importance of this story, but it is a shame that Stone has chosen to be so manipulative with our emotions. Making a film about any event of 9/11 is a risky proposition, and while I don’t believe it is too soon to release films about the tragedy, I do believe we, the audience, deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to handling the emotional events on screen in our own personal way. We don’t need the help of the filmmakers behind the lens to comprehend it.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 125 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language.
Theatrical Release: August 9, 2006
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Andrea Berloff. Based upon the true story by John McLoughlin & Donna McLoughlin & Will Jimeno & Allison Jimeno.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Stephen Dorff, Jay Hernandez