"The whole frickin’ world is comin’ to an end today," someone says in Oliver Stone’s new film World Trade Center . It didn’t. But Stone demonstrates quite convincingly why many could be forgiven for thinking it would.
Forget about JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers . There are no conspiracy theories or bombastic tirades by antiheros championing peculiar ideologies. This amazing film¯all the more amazing because of who is behind the camera¯is a working-class view of what started out to be just another commute from Jersey and the Bronx and Staten Island into Port Authority police headquarters. A group of ordinary cops on a sunny day in September are told to keep an eye out for an 11-year-old runaway from Rhode Island. This was the pressing police matter on the morning of September 11.
Stone conveys the attack on the towers itself obliquely¯a shadow of a low-flying jet passing over the face of another, much smaller, building. A sonic boom. A rainfall of paper. Bloodied faces emerging from billows of smoke. And then what sounds like sniper fire but is actually the noise a human body makes when it hits the ground having fallen from a catastrophic height.
Police Lt. John McLoughlin, played with admirable reserve by Nicholas Cage, takes three of his men, all volunteers, into the one tower they’re certain was hit. Then the roof literally caves in on them. McLoughlin knows enough to run to the elevator shafts¯the strongest part of the building. He and two of his men survive the initial collapse. Then another is lost with a subsequent cataclysm. McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), separated by about twenty feet of debris, are left buried beneath concrete and steel, waiting for help. Cage and Pena play the next 90 minutes in extreme close-up, their soot-and-grit-stained faces their only tools.
Some reviews have chided the film for indulging in melodrama. Yes, scenes of traumatized family members are intercut with those of the men struggling to stay alive. But the film never turns maudlin or trite¯there’s too much unexpected humor, and never a hint of hysteria. One also never gets the feeling that this could just as well be a TV Movie of the Week about two working stiffs trapped in, say, a collapsed mine shaft. In that case, everyone’s eyes would be on the rescue crews hurrying to dig them out. Here, everyone is too preoccupied with the enormity of what has happened even to be aware that there are survivors to be freed at all.
In fact, the real power of World Trade Center is that it is not just about September 11, or the struggle of Good versus Evil. This is also a film about the power of families¯the families we make and the families we join. Family is what keeps McLoughlin and Jimeno fighting for life when the pain, dust, and thirst would just as soon drive them to sleep and eventually to death. McLoughlin and Jimeno¯in and out of consciousness¯see their wives, their kids, the quotidian chores and endless duties of family life, as now the only reason they ever made that morning commute into Port Authority, as the only reason they had to be alive in the first place. And those very same families are also why they run into crime and disaster scenes when other people are running out¯someone has to stand guard to protect another guy’s wife, child, or parent.
And then there’s Staff Sergeant David Karnes. I’ve lived long enough to see the Berlin Wall come down, an end to Apartheid, the revival of New York City after decades of criminal neglect and criminal hegemony, and the Mets and Yankees play each other in the World Series. But I never thought I’d live to see a David Karnes portrayed in a mainstream Hollywood film. An evangelical, straight-arrow patriot¯as gung ho and John Wayne-ish as you could want¯portrayed not as a buffoon, not as a menace, but as a hero. "I don’t know if you guys know it yet¯this country’s at war," he says, and like any other movie hero, he dons his uniform (U.S. Marine fatigues) and heads straight into battle. At times his earnest humorlessness runs just this side of caricature¯but in the end it’s his faith that God is the one who has given him his desire to help people that is his motive force in searching for anyone who may still be trapped and in need of rescuing, regardless of the risk to himself.
As if that were not enough, Jesus appears to Officer Jimeno bearing that bottle of water he so desperately craves¯yes, that Jesus, the one who promised that "whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:13b-14; ESV)." And when what is believed to be the last and fatal collapse of what is left of Tower One shakes McLoughlin and Jimeno to their core, they begin to recite together the Lord’s Prayer, most vividly: "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Please note that this is from the director who blamed "raging fundamentalism in morality"¯ aka, evangelical Christians ¯ for the failure of his 2004 epic about Alexander the Great.
Some reviews have been curious about Stone’s real motives in making this film, despite his insistence that it is apolitical. For example, it has been noted that the word "terrorist" is never mentioned. Not true. In the background of several scenes you can hear NBC and CNN news accounts of the chaos and confusion, including at one point Tom Brokaw announcing that there has been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. It may not come from the lips of the characters, but the characters Stone focuses on are too busy trying to save lives, stay alive, and pray their family members home to analyze causes.
If you were going to read anything overtly political into this film, it wouldn’t be "Bush was behind it all" or "The United States deserved it" nonsense. Rather, Staff Sergeant Karnes, having done his duty, tells a family member on his cell that he cannot commit to coming home just yet. "We’re gonna need a few good men out there to avenge this," he says. During an epilogue just before the closing credits, we are informed that David Karnes went on to serve two tours of duty in Iraq. Now, to say that Stone is slyly justifying the war in Iraq would be to put words into his mouth and thoughts into his head. (In fact, he denounced the war the month it began .) But it’s not a stretch to say that he dramatizes effectively why some who stood on those waffle slabs that once were the World Trade Center believed it was their duty to go and fight wherever they were sent whenever they were called.
If history ended with the death of the Cold War, it was revived kicking and screaming on September 11. And the NYPD, the FDNY, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and a whole host of emergency-rescue workers, social workers, steel and metal workers, and just plain ole New Yorkers who felt compelled to do something rose to the occasion by coming to the aid of their neighbors. And in that, there is hope for the challenges of tomorrow.
But tell your spouse and kids you love them today. And as for Alexander , Mr. Stone . . . all is forgiven.