(Paramount) Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jay Hernandez, Joe Bernthal, Armando Riesco, Jude Ciccolella, Donna Murphy, Danny Nucci, Nicholas Turturro, Patti D’Arbanville, Stephen Dorff, Michael Shannon, Frank Whaley, William Mapother, Peter McRobbie, Ed Jewett. Directed by Oliver Stone.
One of the more indelible events of our lifetimes—all of our lifetimes—is the fall of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The images and emotions of that day are etched forever in our minds and hearts. I truly believe that our generation will be judged by how we respond to it in the same way a previous generation is judged on its response to Pearl Harbor.
While Pearl Harbor happened sixty years ago (ironically, the sixtieth anniversary was less than three months after 9-11), the WTC fell only eight years ago as this is posted (this review was actually written contemporaneously with the film, five years after 9-11). For many of us, the events are too fresh and too painful and I can understand why people I know have stated that they will not go and see this movie under any circumstances. They simply aren’t ready to. Still, it seems that as a nation we need to address these events. The process began with the release of United 93 and continues with World Trade Center.
John McLaughlin (Cage) and William Jimeno (Pena) are Port Authority police officers in New York City. On a Tuesday morning in September, 2001 they both go to work like any other weekday. They go about their business of patrolling the bus terminal or handing out daily assignments. When news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center reaches them they are shocked and horrified.
As they and their comrades Pezzullo (Hernandez), Amoroso (Bernthal), Rodrigues (Riesco) and others are hurriedly sent down to the WTC to help with the evacuation, at first nobody is really clear on what is happening. While McLaughlin seems to have a clearer idea, most of the men are assuming it is all a terrible accident. Once they arrive at the towers and see the devastation, their expressions turn to that of awe and horror. Everyone immediately understands it is going to be a bad day.
They are sent into tower one to go and assist with getting people out. Knowing that the building is full of smoke and flames, McLaughlin wants to make sure they are properly equipped. They have retrieved some additional oxygen from tower two and are walking through the concourse to tower one when the unthinkable happens. The tower collapses on top of them. Despite a desperate attempt to run out of the building, it’s too late. They are caught and buried beneath tons of rubble. Because McLaughlin led them to an elevator shaft, the strongest points of the building, the survivors have hope—they are less than 20 feet from the surface. However, both McLaughlin and Jimeno are pinned under rubble and unable to help each other. They keep their spirits up by talking about things from their families to why they became cops to the theme from “Starsky and Hurch.”
Back at home, their wives Donna McLaughlin (Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Gyllenhaal) watch in horror at the events unfolding. Fully aware that their husbands were quite likely at the site, they frantically try to get information from the Port Authority. However, things are in chaos—nobody seems to know whether or not they were in the building or not when it came down. There are no answers. The women are forced to sit and wait with their families and friends, unable to give up hope but unable to hope that their husbands are safe and sound. Allison, five months pregnant, in particular is close to the edge. She is preparing herself for the worst case scenario with such conviction that her father (McRobbie) fears for her.
The tension is unbearable. At first the news is that they are all right, then later it is that they are missing. Eventually, word comes down; the two men were inside the Trade Center when it came down. The odds of their survival are bleak.
To a marine named Karnes (Shannon) who came on his own from Connecticut to help aid the rescuers, he cannot give up hope. After the search is called off due to darkness, he takes it upon himself to go into the rubble and search for survivors. Incredibly, he finds two—McLaughlin and Jimeno.
Oliver Stone, whose previous movie was the bloated mess Alexander redeems himself with maybe the most mainstream movie of his career. He keeps the storytelling simple, and why shouldn’t he? The story he is given to work with is one of the most compelling of the 21st century. Even though the movie is well over two hours long, it never drags and keeps hold of your attention throughout.
Cage comes through with maybe the most low-key performance of his career. By all accounts, John McLaughlin is not a man who shows emotion easily (during one point of the movie he pokes gentle fun at himself for “not smiling a lot”) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel. His will to live is bolstered by his need to return to his wife—and complete the kitchen cabinet project he’d been working on. Hey, it’s the little things.
Both Bello and Gyllenhaal turn in outstanding performances. As the wives who are forced to wait, they deal with the stress, the fear and the frustration in different ways. Neither one of them strikes a single false note throughout the movie. Both deserved far more acclaim than they received when the movie was released.
I have to say that the scenes of the Trade Center work extremely well. I’m not sure if they used archival footage of the towers or if they put the towers there digitally, but either way it was tremendously effective. The scene of the actual collapse is breathtaking in a literal sense.
We get a first-hand glimpse of what the survivors and their families went through. I would have liked to have seen a little more on the rescuers, but as Da Queen pointed out to me, it really isn’t their story. I might also have liked to have seen the viewpoint of a family of one of the officers who didn’t survive, but I can understand why that might not have been possible to show. I would imagine few of those families are able to conceive of seeing a movie about the deaths of their loved ones, or about the pain they went through until they finally heard the awful truth.
I’ve always blown hot and cold about Oliver Stone. I love JFK to this day with all its flaws, and I respect Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July but I’m less enamored of Alexander and Natural Born Killers. This ranks up there with his best work. Whether or not you go and see it really is a personal decision. It is not an easy movie to watch in places, and there are a lot of moments that are really hard to keep from crying.
Nicolas Cage, speaking for John McLaughlin, had it right when he said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “On that day we saw the worst of humanity, and we saw the best. We saw people taking care of each other.” I left the movie feeling inspired in the same way. We could all use a lot more of it.
WHY RENT THIS: A heartwrenching account of the survival of two heroic transit cops buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, their rescue and the frustration and fear their families felt as in the chaos little or nothing was known of their whereabouts. Bravura performances by Bello and Gyllenhaal are worth noting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who still are emotionally tied to the tragedy of 9-11 may find this too hard to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie may be disturbing as a whole to those who still feel strong emotions about the WTC collapse. There is also some foul language and some scenes depicting the condition of the men who were rescued that are hard to watch.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Will Jimeno and John McLaughlin, as well as members of their family, can be seen in the “Welcome Home” cookout in the final scene. Pena, as Jimeno, hugs the real Will Jimeno.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several. There’s a commentary track with the real Jimeno as well as members of the rescue team, including Scott Strauss who was portrayed by Stephen Dorff and acted as a consultant on the film. There is a documentary on the rescue of the two men, as well as their recovery containing footage from Ground Zero that may be too graphic for the sensitive. There is also a making of feature that Stone discusses the pros and cons of making the film, why it was made so soon despite protests that it should not be and some of the technical difficulties of creating Ground Zero in Los Angeles.
FINAL RATING: 8/10