World Trade Center is about just that — the attacks on, and the collapse of, the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. But 45 minutes in, a viewer might easily forget the movie is set during that nightmarish day. There is little talk of terrorism and scant suggestion that a mighty nation felt suddenly vulnerable and besieged. The filmmaker doesn't cut away to discussions of fury and vengeance; the televisions are on everywhere, but there are few whispers of who did this or why or how they will pay for what they've done. Instead, we're in but two places: trapped with Port Authority Police Department officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin beneath beams and girders and concrete and ash, and in the dens of their families awaiting the inevitable news that they're among the thousands to have lost kin in the World Trade Center. For all the grim baggage it carries with it to the multiplex, World Trade Center might as well be a movie about any two men buried beneath the surface trying to stay alive even as their wives and children and parents and friends believe them dead.
The sole nod to the impending War on Terror, which would become as much a catchphrase and brand name as a military action, are the sequences involving Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon). He's a real-life Marine who witnesses the attacks on television and marches out of his suit-and-tie job in Connecticut and straight into a barber shop for a high-and-tight haircut before shipping himself off to Ground Zero. But even there, he's a man on a mission (from God, perhaps), there to rescue those stranded beneath the ruins; only toward the movie's end does he hint that there is other work to be done in faraway places. Early test audiences did not even believe Karnes was a real person; they thought him little more than a Hollywood fabrication — a do-gooder invented and inserted into a surprisingly feel-good film.
No doubt you already know that Oliver Stone directed World Trade Center, as there was much harrumphing when it was announced he was attached to the project. Surely, his would be a work fueled by paranoia and rage — a we-dunnit, perhaps, or a bloodthirsty act of retribution by a man who puts the “maniac” in megalomaniac. That it's not even close is news enough; not since Heaven and Earth, his codeine-drip-paced closer to his Vietnam trilogy, has Stone made something so restrained and, dare one say, contemplative (or conventional, for that matter). It's as accessible as any Movie of the Week, possessing none of the filmmaker's blustery razzle-dazzle; it might as well have been made for A&E. We don't even see the planes hitting the buildings, only their shadows as they pass overhead; this is ground-level storytelling, where rumbles and thuds say more than anything the director chooses to show, or not to show.
Which is not to diminish its impact or import: World Trade Center is the first Oliver Stone movie not about Oliver Stone. It's about Jimeno (Crash's Michael Peña) and McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage, looking gaunt and weary), who walked into the towers on Sept. 11 and were pulled out on Sept. 12 by firemen, paramedics, and Marines who doubted anyone survived the buildings' collapse. It's also about their wives — Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who cannot imagine a life without her husband, and Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello), who already lives her life as though her husband is a remote, absent figure — and their families, who strain and crack just a little as the hours pass. And it's about the men who rescued Jimeno and McLoughlin, including Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley), a disgraced paramedic with an expired license who quietly redeems himself by doing a job he thought he'd never do again.
Without being too glib about it, World Trade Center is a most improbable thing: an upbeat film about Sept. 11, one of the few stories to emerge from that day to come with a happy ending. Those who stayed away from the superior United 93, which was as devastating as World Trade Center is uplifting, will find here something more palatable — not a memorial to the dead, but a commemoration of the living. The movie's really about but one thing: how average people — men who climb out of bed in the wee hours to trundle off to low-paying jobs that involve them shooing off hustlers and prostitutes, and the women who marry them and tolerate them and forgive them and love them — deal with tragedy.
The movie has little to do with the enormity of the day; fact is, mostly what we see are the faces of Peña and Cage, their eyes the only things visible beneath soot and smoke. What, Stone and first-time screenwriter Andrea Berloff seem to wonder, keeps people on the verge of death from giving in? In Jimeno's case, it's his religion; a devout Catholic, he's buoyed by the recurring image of Jesus toting a bottle of water. In McLoughlin's case, it's his marriage — or what it was and could be, after years of taking the wife for granted. Heroism, the film suggests, also involves seizing the chance to fix a life rather than taking the easy way out by closing one's eyes.