World Trade Center
Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Andrea Berloff

Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena


World Trade Center

There's a New York City fire station at the corner of 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, just a block from where I stay when I'm in New York, that lost eleven of its firefighters on 9/11. Every time I pass by I read the small plaques outside the station that memorialize each of the men who died, and every time I find myself in tears. Perhaps it's because my family lost someone too, but in any case the many tragedies of that day are eternal and inconsolable; the story could have been written for us by Sophocles.

But it could not - should not - have been written by Andrea Berloff, whose first feature screenplay this is, based on the true stories of two Port Authority policemen who were trapped under the wreckage for almost a day before being rescued. And worse, it should not have been directed by Oliver Stone, who has managed to turn tragedy into melodrama; and boring, clichéd melodrama at that.

The film follows a small group of Port Authority police who are sent to join in the attempts to evacuate people from the Twin Towers, led by their sergeant, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage). But when the buildings collapse, he and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) are trapped, pinned under many feet of twisted beams, concrete blocks and rebar. The film is the story of how their imprisonment moves them slowly toward death as they try to survive, and how their wives and children and families deal with what little information they can get.

So what is wrong with "World Trade Center?" First, though not most important, is the script, which if seen on the page would be laughably elementary in both line and structure. No one ever says anything that we have not already anticipated - not the two men, talking to each other in the collapsed wreckage, and particularly not their wives (overacted shamelessly by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Allison Jimeno and Maria Bello as Donna McLoughlin).

Stone, though, has compounded all the bad work by shooting the film as though it were a TV episode. His camera frames everyone head-on, in closeup, as they declaim their lines. He overcuts each scene, chopping them to bits, instead of letting what drama there is simply play out for us as we watch. And since we know there will be a happy ending, at least for these two men, his attempts to create suspense are false and tedious. He even gives a bizarre ex-marine who dons his old Desert Storm gear and marches to Ground Zero to help rescue people, the chance to mouth patriotic lines even George W. Bush would be ashamed to speak. Well, maybe not Bush. The film cannot even be called an honorable failure, because it achieves what it tries for, which is too little and too dull.