World Trade Center is the second 9/11 themed movie to be released in the wake of America’s worst catastrophe and the first, Paul Greengrass’s United 93, set the bar pretty high. Unfortunately, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is everything that United 93 is not. A big, polished, Hollywood picture filled with Tinseltown superstars; an emotionally manipulative monster that drags its audience down into the pits of hell and never really brings them back out again. United 93 left viewers angry and resolute; hardened into terrorism fighting steel. Stone’s movie abandons its audience to quiet, miserable despair.
The film is based on the real life stories of two Port Authority police officers pulled from the buildings’ rubble after their collapse. Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and rookie officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) are part of a team of first responders, and bravely they rush into Tower One to do their job. They’re in the lobby of the building when millions of tons of steel and concrete comes crashing down on them. McLoughlin somehow has the presence of mind to use the two or three seconds they have left to lead his men through the tornado of falling death toward the building’s elevator shaft, knowing it’s the center of the building and their best chance to live. The world goes black, and when McLoughlin and Jimeno wake up they’re buried under 20 feet of burning rubble. Somehow they’ve survived, but they’re pinned under wreckage. Injured, suffering, and slowly bleeding to death they lay there together hoping for a chance at life.
Stone’s take on the World Trade Center attack is at first remarkably restrained. He never shows the planes hitting the buildings, only their shadows passing over confused New Yorkers. He doesn’t indulge in the spectacle of the towers’ collapse, instead he shows them from the inside as they heave onto the heads of doomed rescuers who themselves have no idea what’s happened. The best parts of the film are an exercise in extreme claustrophobia, watching two men trapped and struggling to keep awake in the pits of a man made hell.
Seeing events unfold from the perspective of those two brave men would have been enough. It’s gut-wrenching. The pain of watching is almost unbearable. Unfortunately, Stone just can’t help himself. He has to take it further, and so their suffering is intercut with scenes of their families at home wondering, weeping, and crumbling into desperation. It’s unnecessary manipulation; it’s overkill, and this is a movie that should be better than that. But Stone doesn’t want to leave anyone out, so he further scatters things by mixing in the efforts of McLoughlin’s would be rescuers. They deserve recognition for their heroism that day, but Stone ends up portraying their bravery as zealotism. Maybe he was going for determination, and he achieves that with some of the film’s civilian and police rescuers, but for the Marine who first finds McLoughlin and Jimeno he seems to have only disdain. Hardly a fitting tribute.
WTC never comes close to being the haunting, revelatory film that United 93 is. It’s simply sad, unhappy, and even after our heroes are rescued it still leaves you feeling dire and hopeless. It’s a digitally created product, rather than the scrupulously realistic film Greengrass delivered. Does it do a good job of recreating the events of that day? Absolutely. The problem here is that rather than re-awakening and focusing our feelings from September 11th with its recreation, it plays on them to elicit a sentimental response. The film left me feeling used, as if someone had looked into my head to find my deepest fears, and then found a way to make money off of them.
Is this a well made film? Yes. Perhaps more importantly, with a couple of exceptions, it’s a respectful one. Yet unless you like feeling lost and hopeless, there’s just no good reason to watch World Trade Center. Supporters are already calling this movie a tribute to the victims of 9/11, a way of honoring and remembering them. But if you really want to honor them, is buying a ticket to a depressing Oliver Stone movie the best way we can come up with to do it? The movie has tremendous emotional impact, but only because it trades on the terror still lingering in our souls from the day’s events. It’s strange, but even though United 93 ends in death while World Trade Center ends in rescue, it’s WTC that winds up feeling futile. Both United 93 and World Trade Center force you to relive the events of that day, but United 93 puts you through that misery for a reason. In WTC, there's little purpose behind it beyond simply reliving that horror. Unless you're a sadist, there's no reason to do that. If there’s a message in it, it’s that no matter how hard we fight, or hard we struggle, there’s nothing any of us can really do to stop terror from coming crashing down on us. There’s no light at the end of World Trade Center. Only despair.