How It Rates: ****
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello
Red Flags: Graphic Emotional Content (bring your Kleenex)
The opening scenes of World Trade Center depict pre-9/11 New York City like the post-9/11 metropolis I visited earlier this year -- a tall, proud, dedicated community in motion. As the five boroughs wake up, you are immersed in the glow of a great place unaware of the tragedy about to hit. When it does, you feel the despair, the hopelessness, the anger, the incredible sadness and the disbelief. But you are not robbed of hope. That is the core of Oliver Stone's latest film, which stands as a tribute to the police and firefighters of New York City.
The film recounts the true stories of John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena), two Port Authority policemen sent in to evacuate the World Trade Center when the twin towers collapsed, trapping them for hours. They were two of only 20 rescued alive from the rubble. McLoughlin has been through the first WTC attack, somebody who can lead a team into the complex and save lives. But even he is caught off-guard by the scope of what's happening, admitting he has no plan as his men speed to the burning towers. Jimeno is the go-getter, the person who does the right thing because it's right, not without fear, but with a sense of duty and optimism.
For the better part of two hours, we share their moments trapped in the rocks and twisted metal, fires burning around them as the life fades from them. Here are two men fighting to stay alive, yet longing to close their eyes and rest to deaden the pain ravaging their bodies. Death is the easy way out. Death means leaving their families, their children. They must stay alive and keep talking to each other about the people they love and why they sacrifice for others.
McLoughlin's and Jimeno's families are brought into the story, suffering as much as their trapped loved ones do through the agony of doubt. TV screens around them replay the crumbling buildings and the people fleeing in terror, but no news of John and Will. Jimeno's wife is expecting, and we worry for the fate of the unborn. Eventually John and Will are rescued alive, but it's no Hollywood ending given the unbelieveable loss of other lives we know too well.
Stone spares us the kooky conspiracy theories or moral high horses of previous films and lets the story tell itself. Disturbing images of the burning Trade Center are unavoidable, but he spares us the most graphic pictures, instead presenting the events as seen through the people who lived them. Some may say this film didn't need to be made. They are wrong. The attacks taught us people never fail to come together in the face of tragedy. And while lives may be lost, others are saved -- and perhaps bettered -- because of it. Even the worst terror attacks can't destroy that.
I journeyed to Ground Zero during my New York City trip in April. Memories of the horrid day caught up with me again, along with the sadness. But as I looked out over this giant hole in the ground, I had hope. Someday a giant building will stand tall and proud over the city. It will not be another World Trade Center, nor will we want it to be. We will not erase the pain and death. We will not erase the hatred that spawned it. But we will build and we will live our lives, just like John and Will did -- changed lives -- but we will live them.