A deeply wrought tale of courage and love is Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, atypical summer fare which is difficult to endure, though emotionally potent.
Where were you on September 11, 2001? Stone is less flashy here than in films like Alexander, U-Turn, Natural Born Killers, and JFK in this conventional, yet honorable account of humanity confronting a tragedy in a lofty, measured way. In this sense, there's some fair symbiosis to Paul Greengrass's you-are-there United 93 without any moralizing or political slanting. This elegant cinematic memorial looks and feels like a Stone film, right down to the solemn score, but without the controversy.
Stone lets the audience into the PAPD - the Port Authority Police Department, specifically two of the officers who entered Tower Two of the World Trade Center too late and with little direction. A rescue mission as they brought oxygen for survivors they wouldn't find turned into a devastating collapse, a burial under rebar, steel and concrete.
Those cops, "who saw something else that day when the world saw evil", Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage of Lord of War) and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena, the locksmith in Crash), would be trapped and separated by some twenty feet. Stone appears to have made the fallen skyscrapers a battlefield, and, in some respects there's some kinship to his masterful Platoon with Port Authority's finest going in realizing they may not be heading home. From the viewpoint of McLoughlin and Jimeno, one is reminded of Ladder 49, and from their families' (homefront) perspective, there is the understanding of similar unnerving communicative situations from war pictures like We Were Soldiers and Saving Private Ryan.
The support of Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the wives of McLoughlin and Jimeno, respectively, is rock solid, particularly in letting the viewer into the horror that has suddenly encroached their personal lives. They can even lighten up things when talking about remodeling the kitchen or naming a future newborn Olivia or Alyssa.
The screenplay by Andrea Berloff coalesces the story from the two families to let the events unfold in unhurried fashion for a wrenching, nearly real-time experience. Despite the nature of the kind of dire situation that McLoughlin has never witnessed, Cage and Pena have a palpable chemistry in the dark, perilous, expansive rubble with mostly just close-ups of their scraped, dusty faces with just a glimmer of light above them. There are some tense, unexpected moments with McLoughlin and Jimeno, as well as touching and amusing. In particular, Jimeno, told not to fall asleep, has a vision of Jesus holding a water bottle for him.
Stone's homage to the likes of John Ford, with Cage emerging as a John Wayne type, allows for small, almost cameo, roles for the likes of Nicolas Turturro, Donna Murphy, William Mapother (Tom Cruise's cousin), Frank Whaley, and Viola Davis, among others. Davis, a fine character actor, has an affecting moment opposite Bello's Donna McLoughlin in a hospital waiting room as a mother wanting to right her last encounter with her missing son.
From Wilton, CT, the assured, retired Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) becomes an intrepid, unknown American soldier. His mission to Ground Zero plays out with a little serendipity as the man with a haircut and his old fatigues hears the banging of a pipe.
Stone works diligently with his production team without including actual footage, and the polished product is anything but exploitative. As in United 93, the chaos and misinformation of the moment is on view, even if the unfolding of the tension and uplift isn't as strikingly dramatic. But, the attention to detail and respect for those who lost their lives and the score of the PAPD ultimately rescued is something that is personal and will leave you shaken. Just like the shadow of a commercial jet airline against a huge skyscraper.