"Stone shows Manhattan stretching itself awake in the early hours of September 11th."
There is little point to being critical of “World Trade Center.” Oliver Stone has chosen to concentrate on the survival of two Port Authority policemen who were trapped and nearly crushed when they entered one of the towers to help people in an emergency that no one at that moment could possibly have understood – least of all the victims.
The movie is also the story of their families who waited at home for specific news as they watched the scene unfolding on television. This story, with its intensely narrow focus on the men, is told without flourish and a minimum of melodrama. Nicolas Cage gives a strong, restrained performance; Michael Pena makes Will Jimeno innocent, scared, and brave. Their wives are played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal in two performances that simply jump off the screen in their serious intelligence. On all levels, the movie was made with skill. So why, I asked myself, did I become resentful as it moved along?
Because the story is far too big - and still too full of unknowns - for Stone’s narrow focus, and the problem starts shortly after a superb beginning. In a marvelous series of scenes, Stone shows Manhattan stretching itself awake in the early hours of September 11th. Subways and trains are bringing the workforce to the city in the yellow light of an early autumn day. We hear the roar of an engine and see the quickly passing shadow of a plane against the bright light on a building. Sitting very still in the dark, we will have two hours to think about exactly what happened. We want to understand New York in crisis, but we won’t because Oliver Stone is set on telling us the story of the policemen, which is his privilege but our loss. The main character in this story will always be New York City and the thousands who died.
What we do grasp is the confusion. Television viewers in their homes knew what had happened before the police and firemen at Ground Zero understood the scale of what was engulfing them. Communication was primitive. Trying to make sense of the noise and the cascade of debris, the first responders stare in shock. Then they set about their job: rescue.
When the movie shifts to the trapped men, we lose this mood abruptly; the movie becomes a movie, an intensely personal one, but a movie. With his camera wandering the streets of downtown, Stone was on his way to helping us understand the symbolism of the attack when he dove from the big picture into the specific lives of two of several thousand caught in the towers. Doesn’t fictionalizing the new national reality diminish in some way the ordeal itself? Our country, five years later, is still processing the meaning of that day. We are still bewildered. The movie that will guide us through that and help to illuminate the tragedy has not yet been made.
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