Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center was announced near the end of its pre-production, as a done deal with stars locked and a massive set already built in Santa Monica. The motive was obvious: Stone, the least bankable he’d ever been post-Alexander, had the reputation of a perpetually exiled, maverick political filmmaker whose attitudes jibed neither with Hollywood business models, nor with core American values. Anxious execs probably anticipated a shitstorm of boycotts, so press releases played up the heroism of the two main characters, and the close collaboration of their families.
Those two real-life cops, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and John McLaughlin (Nicolas Cage), were buried in rubble after Tower 2 was hit. Onscreen, they wait to be saved without phones, company, or any hint of outside activity. The film details their conversations in the dark, hallucinations and fears, intercut with scenes of the anguish suffered by their unflappable wives (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello, respectively) during this period of crippling uncertainty.
There was a time in Cage’s career when he passed himself off as a credible, red-blooded American who could hold down a job and support a family. WTC harkens back to those pre-gonzo days, with Stone (why haven’t they done more work together?) taking wise advantage of his slightly aged authority. Cage-watchers should see it; both his and Pena’s performances suggest the genteel toughness of a William Holden or a Robert Stack.
Actually, WTC occupies the same moral universe as those actors’ films, where men are tough, hardworking and good—because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be in movies. And herein lies the film’s thorniest problem: this unnerving, anti-spontaneous bias running through every single scene. Survival is a foregone conclusion, so the aim appears to be a collective exorcism of how rotten it felt to be a New Yorker that day. It’s a picture for nice old ladies, and children who were too young to remember the day itself. Going against the movie is an experience akin to arguing with a neocon who glibly falls back on the same broad, incontestable lines of defense: these guys are heroes! NYC was innocent!
In terms of subtext, their survival—and the genesis of the ad hoc rescue network that fishes them out—adds up to maybe slightly more than a hill of beans. The film advances the not-entirely-incorrect argument that American society was somewhat emboldened—if you wanted to be crass, you might even say “born again”—by September 11th. It gets its emotional charge from that pivotal moment everybody knows, when their deepest doubts and fears are replaced with relief and comfort. It is an ad nauseum succession of hugs, treacly sad-piano, waiting rooms, disappointment, validation, hospitals, rescues, teamwork, flag-waving, etc. At the end of the movie, Cage—kissing his onscreen wife, shaking hands with the real McLaughlin, and still speaking in a New York accent—provides a voiceover insisting that it’s just as important to concentrate on the good things about September 11th as it is on the bad.
“Too soon” is not, and was never, the issue with WTC. It’s this: did we ever need a 9/11 tearjerker? Is that the best Stone could come up with? With the film’s narrow focus, Stone seems to assert that the attacks’ implications aren’t much bigger or more complicated than the events of the day itself. In his whiplash follow-up W., Stone had Richard Dreyfus as Dick Cheney outlining the importance of a robust American “empire” in the Middle East. But here, he implicitly suggests that the rationale for such imperial behavior is both emotionally sound, and culturally teachable. World Trade Center is indeed provocative, if only inadvertently.