The opening shots of Oliver Stone's new film are deliberately peaceful: A hot shower, an alarm clock gently switched off before it can pierce the silence, a leisurely pre-dawn drive to work. Little moments, charged with a strange electricity because we know they belong to a bygone era. World Trade Center is centered directly on that trembling fault line between the final, boring hours of the pre-9/11 world and a radically different future. Good fodder for a director who thinks in terms of decades, but apart from its focus on a seismic macro-topic, the work is barely recognizable as part of the Stone filmography. For better or worse -- sometimes worse -- this is a picture that abandons the outside world and focuses entirely on two victims, alone in the dark. There's never a mention of the snakes on the planes, only a near-postscript from a solitary Marine, who surveys the smoking wreckage and proclaims that "we're gonna need some good people to avenge this."

That Marine is Stone's only indulgence. Played by Michael Shannon, he's an anti-McVeigh who pops out of a cornfield somewhere with a wide-eyed fix on his mission -- to go and provide relief at the destroyed Trade Center. Arriving at the ruins, he slips past an improvised triage center on Liberty Street and is quickly on top of the rubble, searching for survivors with a flashlight. Below him, trapped in a pit of nightmares, are Sgt. John McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno, two cops who rushed into the concourse between one tower on fire and the other ominously concealed in smoke. McLoughlin, played by a gaunt Nicolas Cage, is seen leading his men into the inferno while brushing aside rumors about a "second plane" that may have hit the towers. Only at the moment of no return, with his ears imploding from the sounds of a falling world plunging toward him, does he realize what's afoot, and hurl himself into an elevator shaft just as a black freight train of debris blows by.