(PG-13) Two stars
I try to clear my head of preconceptions before watching a movie I’m going to review. The director’s previous films may have turned me off; the lead actor may be someone I’m not fond of; hell, I may hate the genre, but I do my best to put all of that aside in order to assess the movie on its own terms.
That was a particularly hard task with World Trade Center, Oliver Stone’s fact-based story of police officers trapped under the collapsed towers on Sept. 11, 2001. From the get-go, the trailers pissed me off. Still do, in fact — I saw one on TV a few minutes before starting this and I’m bristling right now.
The trailers are full of artfully framed images and stirring music, but here’s the thing: It’s been nearly five years since Sept. 11 and I remember everything from that day quite clearly, thank you. I don’t need — I don’t want — anyone to take those vivid images burned into my head and attempt to feed them back to me with a big-name lead actor, ace cinematography and orchestral cues to guide my emotions.
There have been numerous documentaries on the tragedies, with Jules and Gedeon Naudet’s amazing 9/11 — which aired on CBS early in 2002 — remaining one of the best. Plenty of real audio and video of the attacks and their aftermath is readily available, so what justification is there for a movie like this?
I welcomed United 93 and the two made-for-TV productions that preceded it because they took us somewhere we could not otherwise go. Sticking as close to the facts as possible, they tried to provide a look inside the hijacked plane that crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside following a confrontation between the passengers and the terrorists.
World Trade Center offers nothing that hasn’t been better presented in documentary form. Worse, it’s not a very good movie. Yes, I teared up a couple of times — just because I object to glossy drama doesn’t mean I’m immune to its machinations. But for the most part, I was bored.
Working from a screenplay by Andrea Berloff, Stone’s 129-minute film has Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and officer William Jimeno (Michael Pena) trapped deep in the rubble before we reach the 25-minute mark. Obviously, their fate will not be resolved until the last few minutes of the movie, which leaves Stone with a lot of time on his hands.
So he dutifully hops back and forth between the trapped men, their spouses (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the activities of the rescue crews, with special attention given to Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), an ex-Marine who suits up at his Connecticut home and heads for Ground Zero to help search for survivors.
Back and forth. Back and forth. I cannot tell you how many times I checked my watch.
There are memorable moments, to be sure, but more often than not, what we see is the same thing we see in any movie about trapped people, from Alive to The Pennsylvania Miners’ Story. Recounted in documentaries, tales like those of the officers can be riveting. But presented as entertainment, albeit respectfully-arranged entertainment, it plays like standard-issue manipulative inspirational fare.
World Trade Center is technically competent and well-acted, though the presence of an actor as highly recognizable as Nicolas Cage is a jarring reminder that the based-on-fact story is a big studio production. Bottom line: If you feel the need for a dramatized take on a Sept. 11 story, this may be just the tearjerker for you. But I suggest you rent a documentary like 9/11 and check out the real thing.
Or just close your eyes and remember.