Oliver Stone’s most successful films espouse theories that create controversy about the subjects and themes that he chooses to represent on film. Whether it is the Vietnam War in Platoon (1986) or American president John F. Kennedy’s assassination in JFK (1991) his highly critical stance towards the American government has largely been a positive factor for him. Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.
With his previous track record and the conspiracy theory prone nature of 9/11 (Michael Moore got that ball rolling with Fahrenheit 9/11) you would certainly expect Stone’s latest effort to jump on the bandwagon. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you position yourself in relation to that day’s events, World Trade Center is an extremely personal and harrowing watch, devoid of any cynical suspicions.
Revisiting the day the towers of the World Trade Center were attacked and destroyed by terrorists in New York City, World Trade Center chronicles the ordeal endured and struggle for survival experienced by two Port Authority police officers trapped under the debris of tower one and two. It also examines the impact that the day’s events had on their families and friends.
World Trade Center could have easily been solely about America as a nation under attack but Oliver Stone has shown great restraint in this respect and instead the film strips the events of September 11 down to their most basic units: the people. The characters in turn, especially officers Will Jimeno (Michael PeÃ±a) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), are exposed to what makes them who they are, allowing them to – if you will – find their true selves or who/what defines them. Through their anguish and suffering they are forced to focus on the things that are of the greatest importance to them. The things that matter the most.
For me, this is where World Trade Center works. It, like United 93 before it, personalises September 11. The development that both officers undergo as they lie trapped under the rubble for hours is a process of chipping away until they reach that one thing that can keep them going. Hope in a particular being (Jesus for officer Jimeno) or the memory of a loved one (officer McLoughlin’s wife). It’s an intense, and I would say at times, beautiful experience.
If you’re worried that a story about two guys trapped under a pair of buildings won’t hold your attention for 129 minutes – that description may sound flippant but it was a genuine concern for me too – then you can be reassured that Stone has also extensively focused on the families of both officers as well as the rescue personnel. So while officer Jimeno and McLoughlin are immobilised, the world around them is frenetically trying to make sense of what is happening. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal put in fine performances that complement the situation that their husbands find themselves in, with the couples connecting through memories and well constructed flashbacks.
Stone reconstructs the events of September 11 fantastically well by using some great CGI and visual trickery. The two towers are inserted flawlessly in the cityscape and, apart from some questionable smoke coming from them after the plane crashes, I cannot fault the effects. The same can also be said of the disaster zone once the towers have collapsed.
World Trade Center is a film that I expected to dislike but one that pleasantly surprised and affected me with its portrayal of the 9/11 terror attacks. Its detractors will draw attention to the fact that it focuses only on the lives of two individuals when thousands were killed on that day, but this intimate portrayal of what happens when two people are forced to survive is very effective. The film does acknowledge that more people lost their lives, and with news and media coverage repeatedly having drawn attention to the scope of that day’s events and the lives lost as a collective, I feel Stone made the right choice in keeping his film so intimate.