World Trade Center (12A) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Cold Stone monument
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The Independent Culture

You never quite know what you're going to get from Oliver Stone, although you can usually guarantee it will be high in emotional temperature and low in restraint. His movies could be seen as a continuous and heavily skewed history of post-war America. In Salvador (1986) he was the scourge of US intervention in South America. In Wall Street (1987) he lanced the Reaganomic boil of "greed is good". In JFK (1991) he pushed conspiracy theory over the grassy knoll and beyond. In Natural Born Killers (1994) he stuck it to the media, and in Any Given Sunday (1999) did much the same to football. Nobody seemed to know what he was doing with Alexander (2004), least of all Colin Farrell as the blond-streaked world conqueror, though it did warn against starting foreign wars - so maybe that was part of the ongoing history lesson, too.

With World Trade Center Stone has forsaken his role as agent provocateur and opted for that of patriot. The movie doesn't begin with the Stars and Stripes fluttering proudly in the breeze, but just about everything else in it celebrates indomitable American bravery and resourcefulness. The best part is its uncharacteristic opening section, as Stone films New York waking up one morning, its almost-empty streets and bridges glinting in the sunlight and commuters on the subway roll into the city to face a day that seems like any other. But this day is 11 September 2001, and the unsuspecting ordinariness is poignant.

Stone doesn't show the planes hitting the towers. The first hint of calamity is felt in the low shadow of a passenger jet roaring southwards down Manhattan, followed by the sudden thunderclap of impact. The grim confusion of those early minutes is etched onto the faces of a squad of Port Authority cops who have commandeered a bus and are speeding towards what they believe is an accident scene. What they find on arriving is near-apocalyptic in its horror, billowing black smoke and a storm of paper raining down from the stricken North Tower. Forced to act quickly, Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) leads a small crew of volunteers into the buildings to mount a rescue operation, little suspecting that the crew will turn out to be the ones in need of rescue. If the scene they have entered is a kind of hell, a maelstrom of shrieking metal and explosive thumps, it's as nothing to what happens when the first tower collapses and buries them. The screen suddenly goes black: this is the end. Except that for two men, McLoughlin and a rookie cop Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), it isn't, not yet. They wake to find themselves entombed.

It would perhaps have been intolerable to linger over their agony for a whole movie; instead, Stone shifts the focus to scenes of their wives, families and friends waiting for news back home. Not to diminish the dreadful anguish these folk suffered during those hours of uncertainty, but this is where the movie runs into the sand: once Maria Bello (as Donna McLoughlin) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Allison Jimeno) have done with looking pale and drawn, there's nowhere for them to go but brave battling-through-the-tears and mawkish flashbacks to the Golden Moments of Marriage. The two are, basically, required to telescope 10 seasons' worth of soap-opera breakdowns into an hour and a half.

Bello and Gyllenhaal are good actresses, but there's almost nothing in Andrea Berloff's script to save them from the onslaught of cliché: they merely dig deeper into their separate wells of misery, and try to cope with moppets asking questions like, "Is Daddy coming home?" Craig Armstrong's lachrymose score twists your arm so hard you'll beg for it to stop.

Stone, perhaps feeling that wives in distress and a couple of policemen immobilised beneath tons of debris will not have sufficient appeal to the rowdier quarters of the cinema, decides to drum up a gung-ho spirit of fightback. A beefy ex-marine named Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) believes he's been called upon by the divine: putting on his old uniform and stopping only for a buzz-cut, he heads down to the smoking inferno to search for survivors after the official rescue effort is halted for the night. "Jesus is telling us to come here," says Karnes, an inspiration that is echoed late in the film when Will Jimeno allegedly sees the figure of Christ looking down on him. Only an American would so openly assume God's partisanship in their hour of need, but then the whole tenor of the film is geared towards its native audience.

World Trade Center is not about the idea of heroism, it's about American heroism; not about our common humanity, but about American humanity.

Will the rest of the world enjoy this sincere hymn to national self-respect? It's hard to see how. The accompanying press-notes testify to a near-pathological level of empathy between the actors and the real-life people they play on screen, yet their passionate avowals about "honouring" the survivors and victims of September 11 are no help when the drama is this stiff and unwieldy.

Will Jimeno has said in interview that, "ninety-five per cent of the film is accurate. There's no controversy in this film." This is maybe why it feels more like a monument than a movie. Much of United 93 proceeded through guesswork: we couldn't know exactly how much we saw in that doomed cabin was "accurate". What mattered was that it felt convincing. It looks even better next to this pious, ingratiating tub-thumper.