Under Duress 

Trapped in the rubble or fretting at home, World Trade Center remembers what a terrible day felt like.

I can't remember the last time I dreaded a film screening as much as the one for World Trade Center. Combine blustery director (Oliver Stone), hubristic title (there are thousands of compelling individual stories to be told from this day), and content that seems beyond criticism, and the result was likely to be something even harder to write about than to watch.

Well, while World Trade Center certainly isn't great cinema -- to the extent the movie succeeds, it's more for what it's about than how it's about it -- it is a surprisingly restrained and honorable attempt to remember a particularly terrible day in American history.

Stone centers his story around the plight of Port Authority cops John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who were trapped under the rubble when the towers fell and became the 18th and 19th of only 20 people rescued in the aftermath.

There are moments when Stone gooses the audience: A series of slo-mo close-ups of soot-covered rescue workers down in the debris are like the cowboy portraits from Red River transposed onto The Grapes of Wrath. The film's score swells a little too much when McLoughlin is finally delivered from the rubble. And most troubling is a voice-over Cage provides for the film's coda, platitudes about how "9/11 showed us what human beings are capable of. The evil, yes, but it also brought out the goodness."

What the makers of United 93, this year's earlier, better 9/11 movie, understood, which Stone can't totally accept, is that no one needs to be sold or told how to feel about the human drama of that day. Merely laying the details out, honestly and unceremoniously, is all that's needed. Stone's restraint for much of World Trade Center is admirable considering that we're talking about the director of Natural Born Killers and The Doors, but it isn't total.

Stone's film is relatively apolitical for a director so steeped in controversy. In attempting -- again, unnecessarily -- to draw non-New York audiences into the film more personally, Stone peppers the film with some Every American characters (though ones based on real people). There's a cop in Wisconsin who, upon seeing the destruction on television, mutters "bastards!" and loads up with brats for the long drive to New York so he can feed rescue workers.

More complicated is an ex-Marine from Connecticut who dons his uniform upon hearing about the attacks and heads for the city. Near the end, walking in the rubble in full camo, he calls his boss back home and says he might not be coming back to work: "We're going to need some good men out there to avenge this." Given that closing titles reveal that this man re-enlisted and served two tours in Iraq, you can't help but think about whether that was the kind of "vengeance" the attacks really warranted.

Stone is on surer terrain when depicting the frayed, worried home lives of McLoughlin and Jimeno's wives, played, respectively, by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal. These are sharp actresses who have been at their best in edgier fare (Bello in A History of Violence, Gyllenhaal in Secretary) and never oversell. Especially affecting is Gyllenhaal as the pregnant wife of younger officer Jimeno. With Gyllenhaal at its center, watching Jimeno's naturally multi-ethnic extended family coming together and at times threatening to fall apart under the stress of the day feels truer than anything else in the film.

World Trade Center

Opens Friday, August 11th

Multiple Locations

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