With Oliver Stone's Sept.11 film 'World Trade Center' opening today, the three big questions on everyone's mind are: 1) Is it any good? 2) Does it do justice to the people and events of that fateful day? 3) Is America ready to pony up money to watch a film about a tragedy that occured just five short years ago?
Now, question 3 is a toughie, and one that the American public will answer collectively at the box office this weekend. But I've seen the film and can answer questions 1 and 2 quite easily right now. 'World Trade Center' is indeed good, although not great, and it most definitely honors America, democracy, the importance family and the heroism of those who lived and died on 9/11. With 'United 93,' the only other feature film to date to tackle the events of Sept. 11, director Paul Greengrass put viewers right in the middle of the hijacking of the eponymous flight as it was unfolding in real time. The result was a film that was deeply unsettling and powerful, even though it maintained an objective distance from its characters. We never really got to know the individuals on the flight -- their back stories and even their names -- and yet we still cared for them, still felt as though we knew them. And that's because Greengrass' film made us feel as though we were one of them. I thought the film was amazing, but -- that said -- I don't think I'd ever want to go through the experience of watching it again.
'World Trade Center' is a completely different beast. In contrast to 'United 93,' it relies completely on character development. Rather than provide an objective bird's-eye view of the day's harrowing events, the film focuses on what befell John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), two Port Authority police officers -- and courageous first responders to the scene -- who found themselves pinned under layers of rubble after the first tower collapsed. The entire film revolves around these men and the impact their situation has on their families. Much of the movie is simply Cage and Pena -- faces caked in ash, blood and dirt, filling the whole frame -- talking to each other because that's the only thing keeping them alive. And in their dialogue, their unwillingness to give up, they reveal themselves to each other and the audience in ways both inspiring and gut-wrenching.
Equally raw and moving are the performances of Maria Bello (as McLoughlin's wife Donna) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Pena's pregnant wife Allison), both of whom grapple with what the loss of her husband would mean for the family. I won't ruin it, but the movie's best, most powerful moments involve Bello and Gyllenhaal coming to grips with the fact that life will never be the same.
The only thing that keeps 'World Trade Center' from being a truly great film is that it feels like a movie about Sept. 11. It has the rousing score, the big Hollywood star (Cage), some pretty cheesy moments and the happy ending, so that we never really let ourselves get too affected by what's happening on screen. But -- you know what? -- I'm not so sure that's a bad thing at this point in time.
Plus, the film does have one other great thing going for it: Controversy magnet and conspiracy theory aficionado Oliver Stone portrays this tale of heroism and hope in as straightforward and apolitical a way as he's ever told a story. In fact, if it didn't say in the credits that this is an Oliver Stone film, I don't think anyone would even believe that 'World Trade Center' was made by the same guy who gave us 'Natural Born Killers' and 'JFK.' Instead of putting his own spin on this tale, Stone defers to McLoughlin and Jimeno, whose accounts provided the basis for the movie. As a result, Stone has produced a heartfelt, moving, deeply patriotic film that honors all those who fought, died and -- in this case -- lived on 9/11. This is one happy ending no one should take for granted.
Tags: World Trade Center, Oliver Stone, Nicolas Cage, Summer Movies