World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006)
There's a remarkable restraint in Oliver Stone's rightfully sentimental take on the 9/11 tragedy which practically changed the whole world. I'm sure it's a difficult film to make. Almost every film made after the tragedy had to take into account the brand new politics (American and world) that was quickly ushered by the tragedy (Zoolander (Ben Stiller, 2001), which was released after the tragedy had to digitally remove all images of the two towers). Stone's World Trade Center breezily walked us through the considerable laxness of pre-9/11 America to welcome in (or cower from) an America that is completely reformed. When Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) first sees the destruction of the plane crashes after being pulled out from the rubble, the first thing he asks is "where are the towers?" Minutes later in the film, brooding ex-marine and volunteer Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) declares to the person he is calling to in his cellphone that this (referring to the once-proud twin towers) has to be avenged.
There's a relative unease in reconstructing a true story, especially if the tragedy happened in recent memory. Stone had to juggle that fact (the personalities and families involved) and his philosophies and politics. I understand why Stone had to level down his shock tactics to film World Trade Center. The event in itself is all about shock and the tragedy has had a tremendous aftershock that rippled throughout the world, and what else would Stone add to the genre that criticizes post-9/11 America (although that genre never ceases to amaze and entertain me with all its conspiracy theories, true or untrue). Instead, he choose to realize a sugary survival drama, distills it from whatever politics that might cloud his vision or might turn the survivors' tale into exploitation material. Of course, that is a near-impossible feat and Stone still crafts the film with a belittled political depth which even minuscule, could create such a stir that can shift your views of liking or disliking the film, depending on your political leanings.
Much of the film is spent underground. Jimeno and cop-for-twenty-years John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), among other brave career men, are Port Authority policemen who were one of the first to respond to the planes crashing on the twin towers. They get trapped within the rubble and the mess of what was once the World Trade Center, and while trying to stay alive, reminisce about their wives and families. Stone spends a great deal of time detailing the internal angst of the wives of the trapped survivors. Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), wife of Will, is pregnant and is unable to keep still while awaiting the fate of her husband. Donna (Maria Bello), wife of John, juggles the task of keeping her children stable while contemplating on the fate of her missing husband (wherein it is suggested that their marriage has turned into an unemotional valley).
The performances are all good. Cage is surprisingly restrained despite being pinned down by tons of concrete. Peña is one of the better performances from Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004), and here, he repeats the same kind of charismatic charm to make the underground scenes a lot more watchable, with his natural delivery of banal and mundane anecdotes about his wife and his childhood. The wives didn't have much to do except look anxious and reminiscent, and since their scenes took a good chunk of the film, it's a tough feat to keep eyes glued on the screen while doing exactly nothing.
The most questionable character in the film would have to be the passionately dubious Dave Karnes, who sees the dissimilar impassioned speech of President Bush on television and sees himself as the savior of mankind during those moments. Stone gives his character much emphasis. Others might think of the emphasis as Stone compromising his politics to please Republican America, giving the hero's role to a defiantly sure ex-marine who shares the same sentiment as Dubya to rid the world of all those who presumably caused the tragedy. I thought not. His scenes are over-the-top schmaltzy. He's given lines that would cause the most thick skinned to cringe with disgust. The character is a self-important bozo that would characterize the stance of the government during the whole tragedy. Rather than a compromise to please, I thought the character was more of a caricature to poke fun at the self-importance, the self-righteousness that has enveloped most of America post-9/11.