Sunday 8 February 2015

Movie Review: World Trade Center (2006)

A survival story set beneath the collapsed towers and based on real events, World Trade Center salutes the human spirit but struggles in its second half to build a cinematic experience out of a mostly static personal tragedy.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Port Authority Police officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) are among a large group of emergency responders dispatched to the World Trade Center after planes piloted by terrorists strike the twin towers. In the plaza level, McLoughlin is preparing his men to help in the rescue efforts when the South Tower collapses. In an instant McLoughlin orders his men to take refuge near the elevator shaft. He survives along with Jimeno, although both are trapped by the rubble and rendered immobile.

Officer Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) also survives and is able to extricate himself, but is unable to free Jimeno and is then killed when the North Tower collapses. Both badly hurt, McLoughlin and Jimeno have to keep themselves alive by raising each others' spirits, while their wives Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and families are consumed by worry and the lack of information.

World Trade Center is a respectful film, director Oliver Stone steering well clear of his tendencies for controversies and conspiracies, and creating an ultimately simple story of courage and rescue. The film also avoids, to a large degree, any spectacular images of airplanes striking buildings, limiting the terrorism acts to small television screens as witnessed by most of the world at the time. The performances match the tone, Cage and Peña creating distinct personalities and teasing out the men's human side as they reveal more personal details of their lives to each other as their ordeal drags on. Bello and Gyllenhaal do all that is asked of them, police wives struck with the panic of the worst possible fears coming true.

The limitations of the film's experience are set by the inherent nature of the story. Once the buildings fall, there is little forward momentum, and World Trade Center is essentially caught in the same rubble as the two officers. There is only so much drama that can be generated from men fighting to stay awake and alive while their families anxiously await any news. Stone has to drag out this phase for close to an hour, and the film suffers from it. In contrast, once the rescue starts, it feels rushed and muddled, Stone and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey unable to coherently reconstruct the arduous work of freeing and pulling out the two men from the tightest of confines.

What the film does do well is present the unfathomably disastrous attacks from the perspective of two men doing their job, getting caught up in the chaos, uncertainty and confusion of events that no one was prepared for, and finding themselves trapped under the rubble of two collapsed buildings and in excruciating pain. A claustrophobic sense of desperation becomes the enemy, the men's only link to the outside world a shaft of light above Jimeno.

They keep each other alive through sheer companionship, clinging to precious life when all around them spells death. Silently, the film forces the question about how many others faced the same fate and were not saved. The impromptu actions of Marines Dave Karnes and Jason Thomas led to the fortuitous rescue of McLoughlin and Jimeno; many others, equally trapped, likely waited in vain before perishing. The impact of the film comes from the realization that for 2,977 families other than the relatives of McLoughlin and Jimeno, the days after September 11 ended very differently, the frantic search for answers met with nothing but silence and ultimately, the most grim of confirmations.

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