World Trade Center
Two of the many heroes depicted in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”.

Theatrical Release Date: 08/09/2006
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal

The second major feature film to deal with the events of 9/11, Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”, focuses on two Port Authority Police officers trapped underneath the wreckage of one of the collapsed towers.

It is a story of survival and the triumph of the human spirit. It focuses not on the horrible actions of the hijackers but the courage and compassion of the people involved in trying to evacuate the buildings and find survivors.

The events are based on accounts of people who were there at Ground Zero and family members who struggled to keep their composure as they waited for news of their loved ones.

To portray these brave men and women, Stone took an opposite approach to Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” and cast known actors.

It was a gamble I wasn’t sure would work but I have to admit that the actors did a remarkable job.

First you have Nicolas Cage portraying a Sergeant in the Port Authority Police and Michael Peña as one of the officers who followed him into the towers attempting to help evacuate the building. Then there are their wives, played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal respectively.

The story is a split perspective, looking at Cage and Peña inside the tower, and at Bello and Gyllenhaal with their families hoping to hear that their husbands are alive.

If anyone watches “The Unit” on TV, this is very much the kind of separate storytelling that is involved. I personally was not enamored with it. I would have preferred to focus much more squarely on the events inside the tower but I see what Stone is trying to do.

The only problem with using such established actors is that there are times, even in the middle of experiencing the towers collapse (frightening is putting it mildly), that you stop and say, “Hey, that’s Nic Cage!”

I have tremendous respect for him as an actor, his turn as an alcoholic bent on drinking himself to death in “Leaving Las Vegas” is nothing short of stunning. But I still have that mental block, where I see a celebrity and my mind wanders from time to time.

In this American culture where we don’t have Royalty, we have Celebrity, separating even great actors becomes a true test of our ability to suspend our disbelief.

Using basically unknown actors, Greengrass allowed the audience to believe the actors. I was never caught up wondering how bad “Ghost Rider” will be.

And while Greengrass examined not only the events onboard the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania in “United 93” but at the same time unfolded the full events of that day, Stone’s approach was much more myopic.

If it weren’t for all of the stunning digital shots recreating that fateful day and the borrowed news footage, “World Trade Center” could have been about any two people trapped in a collapsed structure. There are news reports scattered in involving the other plane crashes but merely as a formality, nothing is really explored in that respect.

But I think that’s okay. It seems that Stone was less interested in rehashing 9/11 and more interested in highlighting the good that was brought out by such evil.

I’m sure by now you are thinking: “Get on with it. Should I see this film or what?”

My answer is an unmitigated “Yes”.

I went into this screening wondering if I would leave the theater feeling as angry, helpless and hurt as when I saw “United 93”. That was definitely not the case.

Whereas “United 93” put a face on the people (and I use the term loosely) responsible for the tragic events five years ago, “World Trade Center” focuses squarely on our immediate reaction and response to a disaster.

That isn’t to say I don’t have issues with Stone’s choices in this film.

Maria Bello wore blue contacts, which I suppose is factually accurate for the woman she portrays. However, they are SO big and SO blue that I spent most of the film thinking her eyes were going to pop out of her head or she would turn into some kind of space alien.

There is a hallucination scene in which one character sees Jesus bringing him a water bottle. This absolutely removed me from the events onscreen and served only as a distraction.

Stone also attempts to show how emergency services and military personnel came to Ground Zero to help in the rescue and recovery efforts. That’s all fine and dandy but it felt forced. At over 2 hours long, the opportunity to streamline the film could have been made here, especially when there is no character development involved.

All of these negatives aside, “World Trade Center” is an attempt to capture the capabilities of Americans to unite and help one another. Using the events of 9/11 as a backdrop makes us sit up at attention.

Having the accounts of people who were there gives this film some more credibility that certain aspects of “United 93” where only speculation and conjecture can fill in key gaps.

While I still think Greengrass’ film is a better made one, and still the one I will point to as the definitive Hollywood feature film about 9/11, “World Trade Center” is better equipped to be part of a healing process.

And if you think you might benefit from a little retrospection coupled with highlighting the human spirit’s ability to be great, this film is for you.

I’m giving “World Trade Center” a 4 out of 5. The issues I touched on kept this from being a perfect film, and I fully realize that being a film about 9/11, there are emotions felt that have nothing to do with the film. So no perfect score here. But it’s well worth your ten bucks and a couple hours of your free time.

The saddest part is that the film makes you wish you could have done more on that day. We all thought about what we could do in the aftermath of such a colossal tragedy. Maybe if we just try putting some of that compassion into our everyday lives, the world could be a little bit better no matter where we live or what day it is.