'WTC': Small Heroes On A Big Day

Nicolas Cage in "World Trade Center"
PARAMOUNT PICTURES
Most of the action in Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," Hollywood's first look at the terrorist attacks that destroyed two of the world's tallest buildings, takes place far below the surface.

The film, opening nationwide Wednesday, meticulously recounts the hours that two police officers spent trapped under the concrete and twisted steel of the collapsed towers, talking to each other to stay conscious until their rescue.

"I was looking for a truth about how people survive," Stone told The Associated Press. "It was an inspiration because it was a true story. ... You couldn't have made it up."

Months after "United 93," the Paul Greengrass film about the fourth hijacked jetliner on Sept. 11, 2001, became a modest commercial success, the makers of "World Trade Center" are banking on a much wider audience for a rare Sept. 11 story with a happy ending.

"It's going to do solid business," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations. Compared to "United 93," "it's more of a traditional movie in terms of its storytelling technique, and you have Nicolas Cage."

The Academy Award-winning Cage is the biggest name in the film, in the role of Port Authority Police Sgt. John McLoughlin. The movie also stars Michael Pena as Officer Will Jimeno and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello as the officers' wives.

McLoughlin led a team of five Port Authority officers into the concourse between the two towers just before the south tower collapsed. McLoughlin, Jimeno and Dominick Pezzulo survived the first towers' collapse. Pezzulo was later killed when the second tower collapsed. After 22 hours, McLoughlin was one of the last of 20 people to be pulled from the towers alive.

Cage and Pena are seen for most of the movie trapped underground, caked in dust and ash and trying to talk to each other to stay alive. Jimeno said that the officers did not know the towers had collapsed until they were rescued.

At the time the second tower collapsed, Jimeno said, he thought a second plane had just hit the trade center; McLoughlin thought terrorists had detonated a truck bomb to target first responders.

"We never knew," Jimeno said. "Then we heard gunfire. ... We at one point thought the cops were shooting it out with the bad guys." They later deduced that they had heard the collapse of nearby 7 World Trade Center, which had housed weapons as part of a city emergency center.