The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - World Trade Center

Full review behind the jump

World Trade Center

: Oliver Stone
: Andrea Borloff, based on the true stories of John McLouglin, Donna McLouglin, William Jimeno and Allison Jimeno
: Oliver Stone, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Moritz Borman, Debra Hill
: Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Michael Shannon, Stephen Dorff, Frank Whaley, Viola Davis, Jay Hernandez

There’s a shot in
World Trade Center where Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose husband Will (Michael Peña) is missing and very likely dead, runs out of her house and stands in the dark and empty street of her suburban neighborhood. Up and down the street, the houses emanate the flickering glow of television sets.

September 11, 2001 was a tragedy that much of America experienced through the television. The terrifying images that reached out through our screen also bound us together for a moment. We were all there, fearful and confused, vulnerable; and then we were together, and with purpose. In the angry and divisive atmosphere that seems to pervade our culture now, that moment seems distant and forgotten; but part of the purpose of this movie, adapted from an inspiring true story and directed with near-invisible excellence by Oliver Stone, is to shine a spotlight not just on the fear of that day, but on the good that emerged from it. The emotional release that comes with the experience of this movie is in part a tribute to its restraint, providing Hollywood resources and polish without the accompanying treacle, but also in the sheer rightness of its message, that
this must be part of our memory of that day, too.

It starts with a husband who cares about his wife. John McLouglin (Nicolas Cage), a 20-year veteran of the Port Authority Police Department, is so used to his 3:30 a.m. wakeup time that he wakes up at 3:29 to shut off his alarm so it won’t disturb Donna (Maria Bello). Because that’s what you do when you’ve achieved a domestic routine, and don’t think that when you leave your wife sleeping in the bed it might be the last time you ever see her.

The movie submerges us in routines – in traffic, in the news reports on the radio, in filling out paperwork and punching your timeclock. Because today is just like every other day. It’s not “9-11”, as it’s been emblazoned in our minds. It’s Tuesday. And the screenplay by Andrea Borloff stays at ground level when the disaster hits – it’s not a shiny carnival cataclysm like Michael Bay made out of Pearl Harbor, just a distant rumble and a whole lot of confusion.

McLouglin has experience with the World Trade Center, and is familiar with security plans for it. But as his squad winds through traffic towards a column of smoke, as they see bodies on the sidewalk, he knows this is beyond anything they’ve imagined. Nobody knows the whole picture – some are saying planes hit both towers, some say the fire just crossed from one to the other. Someone heard a rumor Israel got nuked.

But McLouglin’s smart enough to stay calm – to maintain discipline, to not rush, to help better by being thorough. It is his blue-collar adherence to routine that probably saves his life, because while he never makes it into the tower to help with the evacuation, he has just enough time to note his surroundings, and shout one order about where to take shelter. And then their world comes crashing down in the most terrifyingly literal sense.

What follows is darkness, and a ghastly silence. McLouglin and young officer Will Pimeno are pinned beneath a blasted pile of concrete, metal and pipes, dozens of feet below the surface. Both are bleeding internally, bones broken – unable to escape, unable to move. Outside their wives seem similarly imprisoned, with only the knowledge that their husbands went in, but have not come out yet.

What’s most remarkable about the movie is how it doesn’t judge. It allows characters on all sides to be their full, flawed selves. It understands that a son who doesn’t know how to deal with his father’s disappearance will say cruel things he doesn’t mean. It understands that two men together on the precipice of death will not be full of profundities, but will fill the silence with talk about everything from movies to what they just hallucinated.

It has an unusual, and deeply moving, preoccupation with the means by which people find their way to goodness – tracking characters like an ex-Marine (Michael Shannon) who sees what’s happening on TV, feels a calling, gets a haircut, travels to New York and pretends to be on active duty so he can sneak onto the site. Or an ex-paramedic (Frank Whaley), who lost himself to drink and now doesn’t question his chance to find his way back. Or, in a tiny but devastating role, Viola Davis as a mother who’s standing next to Donna in a hospital, and without ever saying it out loud the two give each other permission to release.

The movie, too, provides a kind of permission to release, and every viewer will have to decide for themselves if they are ready for it. There is uplift to this story, and a kind of relief, but the movie never ignores that while some were rescued, many, many weren’t. Those who come out of the rubble will see a changed world.

Oliver Stone’s reputation as the fevered, media-mixing cinematic collage artist-cum-conspiracy-theorist goes unfulfilled here. What special effects are necessary are unobtrusive and outside of his interest. The photography, under the direction of Seamus McGarvey, stays rock-steady, almost too much so. This is storytelling, and a full compassion for character, an acknowledgement that fidelity is the highest form of service in this case.

There is a unity to World Trade Center – not just in the way the characters are shown to respond to unfathomable tragedy, but to how determined everyone, from the filmmakers to the actors, agrees to not stand in the way of its emotional message. Nicolas Cage, the movie star, submerges himself, his performance is of the kind of beer-at-the-end-of-the-day, been-meaning-to-fix-the-sink guy Hollywood doesn’t make movies about. Except for when they are thrust into the middle of the extraordinary.


  • great review ... I was also quite impressed with Mr. Stone's ability to check his politics at the door and make a great movie about ordinary people thrust into a truly extraordinary situation .. Maggie Gyllenhaall definitely deserves an Oscar nod for this, and probably Cage too

    By Blogger Reel Fanatic, at 12:28 PM  

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