Many pundits expressed outrage at the prospect of noted lefty-conspiracy-mongering sensationalist Oliver Stone getting his paws on the events of September 11; but in "World Trade Center," Stone has made a movie that's pointedly politics free—for better and worse.
It turns out he's capable of muzzling his speed-freak technique: when he doesn't switch from black and white back to color five times in one scene for no discernable reason, he can be a terrific director.
I say that as someone who regards Stone's "Natural Born Killers" as the most loathsome movie ever made — a work that bombards you with empty virtuosity while elevating a pair of serial killers to the level of existential heroes. "Platoon," however, remains an important portrait of war as moral hell; and in its nutty way, "JFK" distills the paranoia that would swamp American culture in the sixties and early seventies.
The best thing about "World Trade Center" is that Stone views that terrible day with the heightened clarity of grief. The cops and firemen in the early scenes already seem like ghosts: men doing their duty, even without direction, not knowing what we know.
The movie is misnamed, though: the focus isn't the twin-towers panorama but two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, played by Nicolas Cage and the superb Michael Pena, one of the stars of last year's "Crash." They're part of a team that goes in to rescue trapped inhabitants, never imagining those groans of steel they hear are harbingers of the collapse to come.
The opening makes you think "World Trade Center" might be a "Towering Inferno" kind of disaster picture, but Stone backs off from spectacle and carnage. The film revolves around the two men pinned under concrete slabs, trying to keep each other alive, and their spouses — played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal — who nearly go mad waiting for word.
All this is beautifully written and acted; I wept, as you will, at what these men endured, and was fascinated by the freakish heroism of Dave Karnes, played by Michael Shannon, a deeply religious ex-Marine who feels called by God to the fiery rubble.
But I also felt that viewing September 11 at this point in time through the prism of a conventional Hollywood profile in courage seemed ... inadequate. Maybe it's because the heartwarming conclusion is so unrepresentative — to the point where it almost seems like a denial of the deeper and more enduring horror. Maybe I wanted Oliver Stone to be a little — just a little — more political.