Hollywood’s resident wild-card director and sometimes conspiracy guru Oliver Stone couldn’t have made a better movie to follow his previous feature. The epic misadventure “Alexander” could have sent a lesser director back to the minor leagues, feeling lucky to direct an episode of “Laguna Beach,” but classics like “Platoon,” “Wall Street” and “JFK” give studios and audiences cause to keep paying attention. “World Trade Center” is Stone’s love letter to the police, firefighters and civilians who showed us all what the best of ourselves looks like during the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
“WTC” is the second feature this year to deal with 9/11 and while it is remarkable enough that both are incredibly good, it is fascinating that they are both so successful as films and yet take such dramatically different approaches to the same event. “United 93” is a brutal and astonishingly accurate presentation – in real-time – of the experience of both the terrorists and victims aboard United flight 93. “World Trade Center,” in contrast, is focused on the interactions between a select few characters and the heroic survival of Port Authority Officers Will Jimeno, played by Michael Pena (“Crash”), and John McLoughlin, portrayed by Nicolas Cage (“Con-Air”).
Cage is outstanding and gives a strong performance that radiates authenticity. It is easy to imagine he has spent endless hours studying survivor McLoughlin preparing to convey the substance and dignity of a real hero. Cage has done a variety of work in recent years, – some better than others – but this role will stand as a highlight in his prolific career. “World Trade Center” also marks the first time he has worked with Stone.
Stone also cast several recognizable faces in minimal, but important roles in “WTC.” Stephen Dorff (“Blade”) and Frank Whaley (“The Doors”) are in the film for little more than cameos, but add impact to the dramatic rescues.
In his distinguished and sometimes confusing career, Stone has proven himself to be a competent filmmaker, but one who is occasionally perfectly content to drive an otherwise good movie right off the rails. Even “Any Given Sunday” had some powerful scenes and compelling characters – take out the scent of Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz and you might have something. “WTC” is the kind of epic film Stone is suited for, and in this case it doesn’t lose any momentum from time spent on hidden agendas.
Stone does an exceptional job with the sets and visual elements in the film, specifically the collapse of the Trade Center towers. The phenomenal sound alone of the building crashing down on top of Jimeno and McLoughlin is emotionally overwhelming. As the characters eventually emerge from the wreckage, they both express astonishment with the disappearance of such massive buildings. Although we know what has happened, these visceral scenes make it easy to wonder all over again at the magnitude of the destruction.
Stone’s steady vision and reverence for the subject and its participants is what makes “World Trade Center” a success. Despite my viewing of both “United 93” and “WTC,” I haven’t decided if I was personally ready to see movies about 9/11 yet. Either way, I am extremely pleased that ready or not, these films are of such skill and depth. Not everyone will find catharsis through stories like these, but it is comforting to know that they’re there waiting for us if we want or need them.