Still several entries short of being its own disaster-movie subgenre, the miniwave of Sept. 11 cinema continues with Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Scrubbed of any JFK-style theorizing, Stone's respectful take on the tragedy focuses on a pair of Port Authority Police Department officers who were pulled alive from the Twin Towers rubble 12 hours after the buildings collapsed.
The film's tagline promises "a true story of courage and survival," and indeed World Trade Center goes for the uplift-amid-tragedy jugular. The 9/11 movies may be here, but it's clearly still too early to dramatize the events without offering catharsis. Even United 93, Paul Greengrass's take on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, spun its obviously devastating final moments into a tribute to its hijacker-defeating passengers. World Trade Center stacks the sentimental deck even higher by plopping movie stars (Nicolas Cage, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crash's Michael Peña) into the disaster. While United 93 had a nearly documentary feel, with nonactors in key roles and gritty handheld camerawork, World Trade Center is classically cinematic, foregoing a sprawling retelling of the 9/11 story in favor of a tightly compacted exploration of human determination.
The day starts like any other, as PAPD cops John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Peña) settle into their routine, tracking runaways and giving directions to tourists. Suddenly there's a shadow overhead, a terrible sound, and the men are hustling several blocks to aid the evacuation of the first World Trade Center tower to be hit — accidentally, they think — by an airplane. Stone never shows the planes' impact; within the film's world, context (and explicit mention of terrorists) feeds in via televisions blaring in the background of nearly every scene that takes place beyond ground zero. Even when the towers collapse, trapping McLoughlin and Jimeno deep within a perilous pile of stone and metal, neither realizes what Stone assumes every viewer will already know about Sept. 11 chronology.
At a certain point, World Trade Center splinters. McLoughlin and Jimeno cling to life, chatting back and forth about pop culture (since the film is drawn from the men’s own recollections, it's entirely likely the Starsky and Hutch conversation really took place), their intense pain, and their families. Meanwhile, Donna McLoughlin (Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Gyllenhaal) anxiously await news of their missing husbands, with golden-hued flashbacks reminding all partners of happy domestic moments they've been taking for granted. There's a brief the-whole-world-is-watching montage that illustrates grief on an international level. And, of course, there's President Bush on the news spewing rhetoric, inspiring ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) to don his military gear and head to New York City to help out.
The problem here isn't in the way Stone and first-time scripter Andrea Berloff characterize these real-life people as almost supernaturally brave under extraordinary circumstances (Jimeno's personal encounter with Jesus is World Trade Center’s "ride the snake" moment, but it kinda works amid the ongoing theme of faith as a survival tool). And it's not that the film disregards the people who died that day. The tone here is very, very reverent. But it's telling that World Trade Center focuses on a success story; unlike the characters in United 93, which built off a few cell phone calls to reconstruct the flight's last frantic moments, World Trade Center’s heroes lived to share their memories, sickly sweet what-should-we-name-the-baby arguments included.
By focusing so intently on just the McLoughlins and the Jimenos (and to a lesser extent Karnes, a rather one-note concession to Stone's military fixation) the film leaves the door open for countless Sept. 11–related movies to come.