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EW review: An honorable 'World Trade Center'

Movie powerful at times, though restraint dampens impact

By Owen Gleiberman
Entertainment Weekly

WTC
Nicolas Cage plays John McLoughlin, leader of a group of Port Authority police officers.

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Oliver Stone
Nicolas Cage

(Entertainment Weekly) -- Five years later, the rawness of the horror of September 11, 2001, has never gone away.

Thinking back to that day, our memories still swirl around media images of frenzy, of the chaos of destruction: the planes crashing, with nightmare force, into the World Trade Center; the sickening, ash-spew implosion of the twin towers; the people in the street scurrying through clogs of smoke and debris, their heads turned back as they flee the madness.

Early on, Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" conjures some of that nearly unabsorbable terror and shock (a body falls from one tower), and it adds a dread-soaked image that most of us have probably imagined but never seen, even as a reenactment.

In the concourse between the North and South Towers, a crew of policemen stand, frozen, as the South Tower begins to collapse. They have no idea what's happening, but it seems like the end of the world, as what looks like a black tornado shoots in from the windows and they run for the cover of the elevator shaft and then ... nothing.

Moments later, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), the Port Authority police sergeant who is leading the crew of first responders, and Will Jimeno (Michael Peņa), one of his men, wake up in the darkness, their bodies pinned by slabs of concrete and skewers of twisted metal. They will be, before long, the only two of their team left alive, and as they call out to one another, what strikes us, more than anything, is the gloomy static silence of the place they're in.

Their limbs are trapped, maybe crushed, their bodies lacerated with pain, and Stone allows their bloody, soot-caked faces, lying horizontal, to fill most of the frame. It's as if they've passed into some shadow world, a vast crushed-wire tomb, with a solitary ray of hope shining down through the rubble above.

Having set us in this dank, claustrophobic, industrial purgatory, the movie returns to the outside world, picking up the trauma of the officers' wives (played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) and families. The tone is personal and mournful; there is no mention of al-Qaeda, little reference to the surrounding spirit of national cataclysm. As Stone then returns, again and again, to that space beneath the rubble, he overwhelms us with the anxiety and tranquility of death.

As a tribute to those who died, and survived, on September 11, "World Trade Center" is a scrupulous and honorable film. Yet it never comes close to being a revelatory one; it sentimentalizes more than it haunts. You're always aware that you're watching a dramatization, with not-quite-desolate-enough sets of Ground Zero and actors transmuting the terror of experience into desperate nobility.

You could argue, of course, that director Paul Greengrass did a similar thing in "United 93," but to me that movie's brilliance was the way it undermined your defenses by restaging 9/11 with the electric realism of live media. It was exactly the sort of film you might have expected Oliver Stone to make, but "World Trade Center" isn't a great Stone film; it's more like a decent Ron Howard film.

As McLoughlin and Jimeno lie there, praying to be rescued, they speak about their kids, their bodily agony, at one point even taking inspiration from "G.I. Jane," and the two actors find a quiet, touching connection.

Yet it does no disservice to the suffering, and courage, of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno to say that there's a fundamental lack of dramatic urgency to "World Trade Center." Stone, who at his greatest is the most harrowing of filmmakers, now recedes into the conventionality of uplift.

I felt as if he was atoning -- for provocative remarks he made after 9/11, for the debacle of Alexander, for too much time in the Hollywood wilderness. He earns his penance, but at the expense of his art.

EW Grade: B

(This is an edited version of Owen Gleiberman's original EW review. For the full review, click hereexternal link. To add your own comment, click hereexternal link.)


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