There are two ways to approach a historical event like 9/11. One would be to try to encompass the entire sweep of the attack in two or so hours of film, trying to squeeze in an event that changed the course of history into a movie viewing experience. The other is to try to tell a single story that illuminates one aspect of the event, causing a greater appreciation of what happened and what it means.
Oliver Stone, in his masterpiece film, World Trade Center, choose the second approach and it works magnificently. The true story of World Trade Center is of two New York Port Authority Police officers who went into the buildings on that day to try to rescue people. When the buildings collapsed, they found themselves under tons of rubble, alive, but horribly injured and in great need of rescue themselves.
The officers were Will Jimeno, played by Michael Pena, and John McLoughlin, played by one of the best actors in American film, Nicholas Gage. The film starts with both men walking up and going to work on what they think will be another ordinary day.
The first hint we see that September 11, 2001 will not be just another day is when the shadow of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center passes overhead, a brief reflection in the glass buildings of Manhattan. World Trade Center, for the most part, shows a street level view of the attack, emphasizing the enormity of the two towers on fire from the point of view of the people who witnessed it. And the film shows the confusion of that day. No one is sure what has happened. Was it a private plane? Was it an air liner? What’s this about the second tower being hit?
McLoughlin, Pena, and a team of police officers go into the building complex to try to help with the evacuation. The occasional sound of thumping is heard from the outside. Those are people who, trapped on the upper floors, faced with being burned to death, choose the relative painless death of falling ninety or so floors to the pavement.
Then there is a groan and a crash, and then police officers run to the nearest elevator shaft as one of the largest buildings in the world collapse around them. Then the movie changes scope, alternating between McLoughlin and Pena, trapped beneath twenty feet of rubble, and their families, not knowing whether they are dead or alive.
The hours those two men spent beneath the rubble are some of the most claustrophobic and horrifying sequences put on film. The men are like bugs, pinned, unable to move, helpless against the shifting weight of tons of debris as more of the World Trade Center complex collapses and as pockets of fire flare around them, threatening to cook them where they lay. The two men talk to each other, trying to keep each other awake and in good spirits as the hours tick away.
At one point, Office Pena is so delirious from thirst, pain, and fear that he sees a vision of Jesus Christ himself, offering him a bottle of water. Some might say that it was a delusion. A person of faith might counter that it was in fact Jesus Christ come to offer comfort. Stone leaves it to the viewer to decide.
A mention must be made of another hero depicted in the film. His name is David Karnes, a former Sergeant in the Marine Corps, played by Michael Shannon. We see him first praying in church for inspiration for what to do. What he does is to go to a barber shop, get a high and tight Marine Corps hair cut, put on his uniform, and go to the place now called Ground Zero to do what he can. It is he who finds the two trapped police officers and facilitates their rescue. Later he would reenlist in the Marine Corps and serve two tours in Iraq
Oliver Stone has wrought a film of triumph and courage rising from the ashes of the Second Day of Infamy. It is remarkable that he is the one who did that, because Stone is usually associated with films casting a dark and cynical view of the American experience. There is no cynicism in World Trade Center and certainly no strange conspiracy theories for which Stone is infamous. The film is a shout of defiance. “You took many lives that day, but not these lives.” Nor did they take what is best in us.
The cast is rounded out by Maria Bello playing Donna McLoughlin and Maggie Gyllenhaal playing Allison Jimeno. One can imagine why it is that these two ladies sustained their men in their time of peril.
World Trade Center joins the so far short body of work examining the day that changed the course of history, which made the 21st Century what we now know it will be. It should be seen, as tough as it will be for most, by anyone who wants to understand the world we now must live in.