Going into "World Trade Center" I was more than a little worried - maybe even terrified - about what amazingly talented but just as wildly uneven director Oliver Stone would do with 9/11.
When I mentioned to Atlanta Journal-Constitution features writer Bo Emerson, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the screening, how conservative columnist Cal Thomas had raved about WTC, he said, "so, it's gonna be a flag-waver, huh?" Well, kind of ...
Telegraph entertainment writer Maggie Large, taking a somewhat more wisened view, said Paramount was screening this one well in advance in red states to generate some patriotic fury and get back all the cash they lost on "M:I:III." Maybe ...
But what it really is is simply the tale of two very ordinary Port Authority cops caught in a truly extraordinary situation, told with remarkable restraint and a storyteller's skill.
From the very beginning, you can tell this isn't going to be your average Oliver Stone film. As the tragedy is slowly unfolding, he largely skips the gotcha moments which would have been so easy to grasp in this hell on Earth, instead telling the story from the view of the cops who had the duty and nerve to run into it. The image that most sticks in my mind was the paper streaming down, along with ashes, as the PA cops arrive on the scene. It reminded me again, as it did when I watched it on TV that day, of some kind of bizarro ticker-tape parade of carnage.
And the cops we meet walk and talk like, well, cops. The funniest moment in the calm before the chaos comes as they're on the bus ride down to the Towers, trying to figure out just what's going on. As they trade nuggets of news, one mocks the other who shares what his wife told him with the withering rejoinder, "Who the hell gets their news from Hot 97?"
Our leader is John McLoughlin, a veteran PA cop who had already responded to terror at the Towers once before, when they were hit by a truck-bomber in 1993. He's played by Nicolas Cage, who I frankly haven't much liked since "Raising Arizona" and "Wild at Heart." Here, however, he plays it very low-key and likable, not unleashing any screams until his character is in unbearable pain under a pile of rubble.
Since the tagline for this one is "The world saw evil that day, but two men saw something else," I hope I'm not giving too much plot away here. Shortly after entering the scene, a building comes crashing down on Cage and the small band of cops brave enough to join him, trapping them, and killing most in the group. Cage and one of his young charges, Will Jimeno, played by Michael Pena, survive and are left clinging to life, still not really sure exactly what's going on around them.
At this point, with our two heroes motionless, bloody and covered with ash and soot, the movie definitely could have started to drag, and it kind of does. Two things, however, keep the story moving along. The first thing is the back-and-forth banter, as much as they can muster, between Cage and Pena. It's full of fear, false bravado and even humor, as when Pena talks about how much he liked "Starsky and Hutch" and how many times he "arrested" his sister as they ran around the house. We get a vivid glimpse of who these two men, who shared their stories with Stone, really are.
The second thing that holds our attention is the parallel stories of the wives and children impacted by these events. Stone wisely realizes this is the real core of the story, and he has two great actresses in top form. Maria Bello proved in "A History of Violence" that she can play a woman struggling to keep control as her world crumbles around her. She should have won an Oscar for that role, and here she's almost as good as Donna McLoughlin.
The real kudos, however, go to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Jimeno's very pregnant wife, Allison. She pulls us into this awful experience and takes us right along with her through a remarkable performance. As Jimeno's large family is gathered at their house, clinging to every bit of information, a dazed Gyllenhaal stumbles into the kitchen to find one of her many in-laws kneeling on the floor and fervently praying in Spanish. It's a quiet moment that makes a subtle but powerful point about immigration that a younger Stone would have been incapable of achieving.
In the end, there is some flag waving, but why not? Stone earns the right by delivering this harrowing tale of survival without any of the wild touches that would have turned it into a mess. Will it be a big money-maker? I don't think so. Though it is a story of true American heroes, it's still one that for many people will be very hard to watch, and I fully understand where they're coming from.
For this great movie, at least, it seems that Oliver Stone really was changed by 9/11, but hopefully not too much. I love the conspiracy-chasing side of him, and it should be in top form for his next project, the story of Custer at Little Big Horn. I can't wait to see what he does with that.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Posted by Reel Fanatic at 5:26 AM