America Remembers September 11, 2001
Above Hallowed Ground:
"World Trade Center"
Oliver Stone's stock in trade are those famous people and events in contemporary American history that affect the national psyche. In "JFK" he made us face the tragedy of a presidential assassination, resurrecting known and some less-known details along with his take on conspiracy theories and, therewith, stirring up emotional memories that are instilled in some of us for life. He gave us "Nixon" and again brought this failed president down. He pursued a dictator who has an outsize effect on hemispheric politics with the mostly ignored "Looking for Fidel."
Stone, after waiting a respectable period of time, is asking us now to look back at our latest major national tragedy apparently calculating that enough time has passed for a dispassionate consideration of it. The deciding factor of that, of course, is in the heart and mind of the beholder. To ease the emotional burden, he centers his dramatic re-creation on two individuals who acted selflessly and heroically in trying to save people stuck in Tower One of the World Trade Center. But, while some may be able to suspend grief and avoid reliving feelings of that dire, unbelievable moment of hatred and death, not all of us will be able to. Those who think they couldn't take a disturbing reminder (and I know a few) probably shouldn't try.
Working from Police Sergeant John McLoughlin's 1st person account of his near-death experience along with one of the men of his Port Authority squad of rescuers, Stone developed his evocation from the experience of these two lucky survivors and their families' wrenching agonies at the time.
In the frantic confusion following the first airplane hit on Tower One, Sergeant McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) rounds up his squad of cop volunteers and does his best to figure out what to do to help. Keeping his cool, he methodically provides strong leadership in rounding up what emergency equipment and safety uniforms can be found on site. Amidst rumors of Tower Two being hit and an airplane striking the Pentagon, he and his men race through the lobby until structural fragments begin to drop all around. When explosive sounds are heard and a raging torrent of fire, smoke and debris race through the corridors, he commands his men into the relatively stable elevator shaft.
In the aftermath, all men of the squad are lost except McLoughlin, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez). The latter two end up near each other, with McLoughlin within earshot but firmly trapped about 20 feet lower. Pezzulo manages to wriggle free of the pipes and concrete debris surrounding him, allowing him the freedom of movement to try lifting the slab pinning Jimeno. Unable to move it, he becomes mortally wounded when another load of rock tumbles down the shaft.
As McLoughlin and Jimeno do their utmost to keep each other awake and alive, the story expands to the shock and anxieties of their families in real time and flashback memories of critical moments in their marriages. The prevailing issue between Jimeno and pregnant wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Secretary," "Sherrybaby") is what to name the baby. For McLoughlin, in what might be his dying moments, he wonders if he loved his beautiful wife Donna (Maria Bello, "21 Grams," "The Cooler") well enough. Donna herself is a rock for her family, trying to maintain outward calm for the sake of her three kids while consumed with fear in her gut.
Marine Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), in civilian life an acountant and a deeply religious man, heard the call in what he was seeing on the TV monitor, donned his fatigues and raced to Ground Zero. Gaining entrance past the barriers, he took his his own course and started roaming the very center of the ruins, looking down into every crevasse and yelling out, "If anyone hears me, yell 'Attack'."
Beyond the dread of partial burial, the instability of the structural parts above the two trapped officers became the source of greatest tension, and the peak of terror comes with the sounds of debris movement in the amped up bass ranges that you feel in your chest. From near and far, spaced at intervals, the sounds and the threat of imminent death comes -- and Stone spares no volume to produce the uncanny and horrendous fearsomeness of it.
Through the gut-wrench of these two would-be rescuers slowly deteriorating without water, and giving up on the promise of another day, the key emotional moment that brought tears to my eye came from Maria Bello's breakdown in the arms of a stranger, a woman whose son didn't make it.
Though it may sound like it, this is not sentiment for its own sake. Stone's tendency to enlarge, to extend and to exaggerate for dramatic purposes shows in the length of the film and in the somewhat overproportioned time spent in the elevator shaft and with the families. But despite that tendency to overstate, the essential story is wisely held in check with the factual scenario laid out by the guy who lived it. The discipline that this imposes makes the movie worth seeing, and you never lose sight of the fact that it really happened to the guys and families whose depiction you're watching.
It's not a question of accuracy, validity, or need to see... it's only a question of being able to take it -- that is, live through a vivid face-to-face with death with two survivors most of us would be inclined to call heroes.
The Soundtrack Album