At first, it might be hard to see director Oliver Stone's fingerprints on his new movie, a true-life, against-all-odds tale of 9/11 survival. But as soon as you see the multicolored, hallucinogenic image of Jesus Christ holding a water bottle and a heart of nails, you know you're watching a film from the same bombastic, hyperactive man who brought you The Doors and Natural Born Killers.
Granted, the shot is eventually explained. It's a vision that comes to Port Authority policeman Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) when he's trapped in the wreckage of the twin towers, dying of thirst while waiting for help. But it illustrates the director's inability to tell a compelling, true-life story without ladling on a million florid, speculative details.
What's odd is that now Stone's editorializing plays into the god-and-country clichés he's spent his whole career railing against. Though the first half of World Trade Center is a fact-based horror show, reveling in mundane details and slo-mo destruction, the second half is a not-quite-compelling portrait of two families' angst. No matter how hard he tries, the director simply can't make these instances of survival resonate in the midst of the thousands of others who perished that day. The film is neither edifying nor emotionally engaging; as a re-creation of what happened that day, it pales in comparison to what the world saw reported on TV, and as a melodrama, it feels incomplete and shallow.
Instead of a moving exercise in documentary-style chaos like this spring's United 93, Stone's film adopts a more Hollywood approach. World Trade Center opens with the men of New York City's Port Authority waking up, getting dressed and commuting to work. Almost 10 minutes elapse before we get the ominous, "duh"-inducing date displayed onscreen: "September 11, 2001." Setting things up like a slasher film, Stone introduces us to a slew of young men we know will soon die; since they're given the most attention, it's fairly clear that Jimeno and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) will be our two suffering survivors. In these and other scenes, the movie builds dread but not tension. As the officers walk their beats and interact with the usual array of bums, tourists and small-time criminals, we wait for the planes to hit.
To his credit, the director doesn't dwell on the moment of impact. We see the shadow of a jet where it shouldn't be, and a close-up of a water cooler as it tremors and shakes. But as our two policemen approach the twin towers, Stone's work begins to show some seams. He zooms in on the re-created image of a body dropping from the buildings, and the shot doesn't match with the footage of Cage standing in an empty street with some random papers and debris being blown his way. Extras stalk away from the scene bruised and bloodied like zombies, but the PG-13 spectacle of carnage is tame compared to the real thing.
The same aura of unreality infects what happens next: McLaughlin and Jimeno are caught in the fifth building of the complex when the towers fall, and we witness their experiences being buried alive. They watch as their partners die; they scream and writhe in pain; they discuss the finer points of the movie G.I. Jane. Moments like this suggest a Samuel Beckett play crossed with a disaster movie, but just when you really start to feel the claustrophobia, Stone expands his scope to include the suffering of the men's wives and this is where the movie really stumbles the suffering of the world at large.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Mrs. Jimeno and Maria Bello is Mrs. McLoughlin, and the talented actresses give their characters some moments of grace amid their worry and fear. But the film piles on corny flashbacks to happier times with their husbands, the same sort of thing you see in life-insurance commercials: gauzy, amber-tinged recollections of the most apple-pie moments a family ever experiences, such as Dad working on the house or Mom making food in the kitchen. The director doesn't allow for a moment of dramatic irony, a sense that these men could have been taking their lives or wives for granted on Sept. 10. Since when did Stone become such a sentimentalist?
With the exception of one ex-Marine who feels divinely compelled to shave his head, dress in his old fatigues and head down to Ground Zero, the movie devotes no time to the stories of the rescuers who banded together to find Jimeno and McLoughlin. And Stone only pays lip service to the thousands of others whose fates were much more tragic. When the line of dialogue addressing that unavoidable fact is finally spoken by B-movie hack actor Stephen Dorff, you know you're in trouble.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.