But with World Trade Center, it’s all too clear that Stone’s hands weren’t simply tied. They were handcuffed, wrapped in plastic, encased in concrete and chained to his feet -- all by the weight of the events and emotion of Sept. 11, 2001.
While watching the film, it’s hard to not be impressed by the no-nonsense opening and the tasteful way Stone handles the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings. The film opens with John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) waking up in the early morning hours and going to work at the New York City Port Authority Police Department. They shower, they change into uniform, they go to roll call, they go off to their assigned stations. Then an airplane hits one of the towers and they’re called to duty at the World Trade Center.
Stone swiftly moves us from the mundanity of the everyday – Jimeno recognizes a regular panhandler at a bus station and interacts with him as if they’ve been through the same routine a hundred times – to the extraordinary of that day – going into a towering inferno armed with nothing more than a desire to help people and do a good job. He similarly deftly handles the confusion and adrenaline of the initial moments of the terrorist attacks by showing our heroes unaware that the second tower was ever hit with another plane when the tower they’re in comes collapsing down on them.
And up to this point, when John and Will are pinned under rubble, hearing their comrades dying and watching literal glimmers of hope of being rescued get enveloped by the twisted steel and stone pinning them down, World Trade Center is positioned as a wonderful character study of these two first-responder heroes.
But then something awful happens: Stone is seized by the weight and expectation of the still-raw emotion of 9/11.
After a handful of minutes in the dark, dusty tomb John and Will are in, we’re taken abruptly out into the shimmering, idyllic daylight of suburban New York where John and Will’s families, wholly independent of one another, are witnessing the terrorist attacks unfold on TV. We meet John’s wife, Donna (Maria Bello), and his kids and friends, Will’s wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and his extended family. We also meet firefighters in Wisconsin and a retired military man in New England. And in every case, these scenes and lives are presented in such a syrupy nostalgic way that Norman Rockwell would have blushed.
This might not be that big of an issue, but Stone keeps our attention far too long on these scenes and much too little on the men trapped under the World Trade Center. Worse, the characters that make up John and Will’s families aren’t really that interesting. Where John and Will are more nuanced sketches of standard American grit and heroism -- John Wayne could easily have filled in for Nicolas Cage -- their families are painted in broadstrokes. Allison is a tough-as-nails Jersey girl. Her parents are carefree, waspy types. Will’s parents are doting Hispanics that speak only when spoken to, and even then they say very little. John’s kids are brats, his wife a stereotypical stay-at-homer. Bello and Gyllenhaal especially do more with their roles than “World Trade Center” is entitled to. They’re given very little to do outside of being shattered, anticipatory widows wringing their hands waiting for the bad news.
But not always. We’re given moments, when we’re back in the tomb with John and Will, of the two men remembering moments of their lives with their wives and how important their spouses are to them and how they’re keeping the men alive. These scenes are extraordinary in their ability to convey more about relationships and characters than any scene in “real-time” of those outside of the tomb.
It’s hard not to think that if this were Stone in his prime, he would have shut out the calls to be respectful to the events of 9/11 and done something audacious with this device to create a more effective picture, rather than one of sentimental pap. One such thing could have been internalizing every other major character in the film, making them only appear as memories and moments in the minds of two people struggling for life with no water, little air and no hope. The only time the wives and kids and such would appear in reality would be at the end of the film, when the men are rescued and away from the destruction. This would have made for a more effective tool for expressing how important Donna and Allison are to John and Will, especially when stacked next to how they’re actually portrayed in World Trade Center.
There are other problems with the film – it feels too flat, the ending is extraneous, the script is about as bare as can be, the direction is at times stilted – but this disparity between the tomb and suburbia is the one that stings the most. The Oliver Stone of JFK, Nixon, and most appropriately Natural Born Killers -- a film where all past relationships are internalized as memories, television shows or other pop culture devices -- would not make a film like World Trade Center.
Had the powers-that-be waited a few more years to embark on the endeavor of making it – rather than crassly trying to cash in on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 -- World Trade Center could have been a fine fictional document of the event. But they didn’t, and the result is a half-baked want-to-be character epic that accomplishes only being a marginally entertaining late-summer blockbuster triviality.