Monday night I saw an advance screening of World Trade Center, which opens Wednesday. The large audience in attendance was respectfully silent the entire time, stopping to laugh during appropriate moments of levity and cheer after one character's statement of patriotic duty.
"Patriotic duty" is a good way to describe director Oliver Stone's effort. Despite the title, this is not really THE story of the World Trade Center at all. It's the true story of a group of Port Authority cops who were among the first to respond to the emergency, before the second tower was hit.
The film opens well. We're immersed in the New York City environment early that Tuesday morning, presented with subtle details that will have no significance once horrible history takes place. Stone also does a good job expressing the lack of information available once the first tower is struck, allowing the characters to only guess the extent of the damage.
What the director gains from authenticity, he loses in dramatic impact. The two cops who survive, Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), had only recently arrived on the scene and had done nothing more than prepare to help people. As a viewer, I was somewhat frustrated by this perspective, as it made 9/11 mostly apolitical and more human interest; some scenes felt no different than a movie about trapped coal miners after a cave-in.
The human interest angle makes watching a film about 9/11 more inviting and warm, but it still left me cold. Maybe it was the fleeting references to any social context or response. Maybe it was the detachment I got from not being able to tell how much time had elapsed. Or maybe it was the curious depiction of the policemen's wives: Maria Bello, with her chiseled cheeks and icy blue contacts, or Maggie Gyllenhaal, pregnant and distracted.
Not knowing this story in advance, I realized midway through the film that both cops did not have to survive for the story to be recounted, and so there was some suspense in determining whether the ending would be uniformly positive. But I don't feel like a spoiler to tell you there is a (relatively) happy ending. World Trade Center is a hard enough sell as it is.