World Trade Center (12A)

Sure, it was a tricky day
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The Independent Culture

Admit it: of all the films you most dread watching, an Oliver Stone dramatisation of 11 September is high on the list. In the event, there's little that's exorbitantly crass or bombastic about Stone's World Trade Center: the film's worst gaffe is arguably its title. Stone has stated that this was never intended to be a political film, but it's barely a historical one, either. It doesn't aspire to offer any sort of kaleidoscopic view of that day's events, focusing strictly on the experience of two survivors, officers of the Port Authority Police Department. As an account of their ordeal, Stone's film is evocative, thorough, more than competent: but it's in no way the definitive film about 9/11, the monument in celluloid that the title suggests.

Stone's heroes, on whose accounts the film is based, are PAPD Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who were helping evacuate the Center when the towers collapsed, leaving them pinned under concrete and metal, 20 feet beneath the rubble. It's a bold move by Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff to keep us underground for so much of the film. What happened to McLoughlin and Jimeno is no doubt as extreme an experience as could possibly be taken from that day and recounted on screen in a way remotely bearable to watch: not even Stone would have been rash enough to try representing the ordeal of those who died floors above, or of those who jumped from their windows.

The tangled pit where the men hoped against hope for rescue provides the film's claustrophobic central stage. Stone cuts between it and the two men's worried families and wives: pregnant Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello). But the film's contrast between hell under ground and a vision of domestic American paradise becomes glaring: literally so, as the men's memories of home tend to be shot in wholesomely glowing pastels. Donna even appears to her husband at one point as a transparent ghostly vision, gently knocking good sense into him. Gyllenhaal and Bello are so glamorous that it actually seems to be the thought of their wives' perfect hair that keeps the men alive.

Stranger still - though this too is apparently based on testimony - is Jimeno's vision of Jesus, shown here as a blur of neon holding out a bottle of mineral water. This is not the only religious note. The strangest character, again drawn from life, is ex- Marine Dave Karnes, who, learning of the disaster, got himself a haircut, drove to Manhattan from Connecticut and strode straight into Ground Zero (eerily shot as a righteous man's walk through the Valley of Death), where he located the two policemen. Here Karnes is on a divine mission, his decision taken after a long, hard stare at the cross - yet he's also the voice of war, commenting, "We're gonna need a lot of good men out there to avenge this." Stone, till now a reliably trouble-making liberal, doesn't seem to be in any way distancing this presentation. Played with monolithic, even robotic determination by the staring-eyed Michael Shannon, the "Staff Sergeant" is a downright scary figure, though he's surely not intended as one: he's simply one of those no-bullshit divine obsessives that Stone admires.

As seemed inevitable, World Trade Center is finally "just" a solemn, expensive disaster movie, albeit a restrained and passably gripping one; even so, it doesn't use the immersive nature of film with anything like the intelligence and intensity of Paul Greengrass's United 93. But you could easily leave the film with no sense of the meaning of 11 September: the implicit moral is that, despite the devastation felt by so many, the day was a God-given test that taught certain American families how lucky they were. As Cage's McLoughlin says in his closing voice-over, "9/11 showed us what human beings are capable of. The evil, yeah, sure, but also goodness." Stone's film is determined to pluck optimism out of the ashes, and why shouldn't it? But while it focuses on one episode from the endless complexity of that day's events, the totality of 9/11, and a sense of its greater resonance, is conveniently skirted under that innocently dismissive "yeah, sure".