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Film Review

World Trade Center

(August 21, 2006) Five years have passed since 9/11, and the event, which changed America forever, does not yet seem to have been grappled with by artists. Is it possible for a film maker to deal honestly and respectfully with this thing so soon afterward? And if so, will film goers want to watch something still so raw and painful? United 93 was the first major film to attempt it, and largely succeeded, but attendance has been disappointing. Oliver Stone, notorious to some for his revisionist takes on American events, looks at that day in New York City through the eyes of the two Port Authority policeman who were trapped in the collapse of the buildings for a day before being rescued. Both men thought they would die down there, and very nearly did, before their miraculous discovery and heroic rescue.

Stone begins his story with both men waking up before dawn as usual, in their commuter communities, to shower and drive into the main Port Authority Police Station in New Jersey, while their wives are still sleeping. Nicholas Cage plays Sergeant McLoughlin, a grizzled veteran of the earlier World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and a new policeman, William Jimeno, played my Michael Pena, who is eager to gain the respect of the other men. We see their routines: the locker room kidding, assembly, briefing, and dispersal to their various patrol areas. Stones shoots very beautiful scenes of NY early in the morning with people on their way to work, early trades already at work, and glimpses of life in the city. The many scenes of Manhattan with the towers intact early that morning are very poignant. The tension becomes almost unbearable. We see a group of people walking to work on a sunny sidewalk when suddenly a large shadow quickly crosses, and then a sudden boom. Everyone is stunned. To his credit, Stone does not show the impacts, but we see it on the faces of people on the street. Jimeno is giving some tourists directions when he gets a call on his radio to report back. Someone said that a small plane has crashed into one of the towers, and soon we are with the group of PA policeman, on a commandeered bus, commanded by Sgt McLoughlin, heading downtown to the twin towers. One of the policeman on the bus gets a cell phone call from his wife that another plane has crashed into the second tower, but no one believes him. As they approach lower Manhattan, they see people running, general panic, and finally when near, they see the smoke, some people injured and covered with soot, and chaos. The air is filled with papers from the towers, like dirty snow. There is tremendous confusion, with hundreds of people fleeing in panic, many hurt, and fireman and policeman beginning to enter both buildings. No one yet realizes the extent of the damage, but we know that we will never see most of the rescuers again. All of these scenes seem intensely realistic and often horrific.

By now, glass and debris is showering down in front of the buildings, and more people are fleeing, many bloody or burned. McLoughlin takes a team of six men into one of the towers, first collecting air packs, then starting to go into an elevator. They hear loud noises, that we know are the building beginning to come apart, but they continue on. Suddenly the building begins to collapse around them, and McLoughlin shouts for his men to get into the elevator shaft. McLoughlin and Jimeno end up in near darkness, covered with debris, badly injured, pinned, and unable to move, in a small pocket created by jumbled beams. A third man is also pinned but beginning to dig himself out. A few minutes later, there is a tremendous boom (the second tower collapsing), more debris falls on them, severely wounding the third man. They are barely able to see daylight many feet above, but the camera begins to climb, until we emerge into a vast pile of smoking wreckage. We cannot comprehend the scale until the camera climbs further to survey this scene out of hell. This scene will never be forgotten by anyone who sees it. It is breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Stone repeatedly shifts from the trapped men to the families waiting for news of their loved ones, still unaware of the magnitude of the disaster. But soon television makes clear what has happened, and everyone wonders who went into the building, and are they still alive? Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Allison, Jimeno's expectant wife, and Maria Bello plays Donna, McLoughlin's wife. Both women try to cope, deal with their children and families, and fight their growing fears that their husbands are dead. The news on the television becomes worse and worse, and the PA headquarters have little information.

An ex-Marine in Connecticut looking at the news, decides to put his old fatigue uniform on, and go to the site to see if he can help. He slips through the police lines, meets another Marine doing the same thing, and they begin a dangerous climb onto the mountain of wreckage, still hot and smoking. They hope to find anyone trapped. Again, the scene shifts rapidly from the Marines above to the men below. The men below are talking to each other, trying to keep each other awake. Jimeno has a strange vision, and McLoughlin sees his wife next to him, telling him to come home and finish the kitchen that he had begun to remodel. Each keeps the other awake and alive. Miraculously, the Marines hear Jimeno banging a pipe, call to him, and promise to get him out. The one Marine says we won't leave you, we are Marines. Having been saved by the Marines myself, that line had tremendous power. The Marines bring the fireman to the spot, who attempt a dangerous dig into the wreckage. I won't describe the rest of the film, but it maintains its focus and power every minute, and the acting remains uniformly outstanding.

I think that Oliver Stone has made a tremendous film here, with great power, vision and clarity that has sometimes been lacking in his other films. His depictions seem immensely accurate and in my mind, are the closest thing to having been there. He shows the intensity of a people united in an attempt to help and support each other, often at the cost of their lives. And of volunteers from many other states, streaming in to help, whether it was simply helping the injured down the street or handing out food to fireman. Stone makes us justifiably proud of our response then, almost as if in penitence for some of his more bizarre films, like JFK. But our long term response has not been pride worthy, to say the least. A coda states that that Marine rescuer re-enlisted, and served two terms in Iraq. Our focus should have remained Afghanistan. What tragic irony, that this man's patriotism (and millions of others) should have been so exploited by the Bush Administration. I think it is important to see this film, because we are seeing great art and remembering and honoring those who served (not many of us, to be sure) and those who died on that terrible day. The label of hero has become much diluted, but these people were the real thing. More than most films, WTC should be seen in a theater.

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