When it was announced that Oliver Stone was going to direct "World Trade Center" - Hollywood's first major film about the September 11 terrorist attacks - people were skeptical, to say the least. Forget about Stone's talents as a filmmaker; it's the man's politics that took center stage in the debate over whether he was the best candidate to explore such uncharted territory.
After all, here's a guy whose nutty conspiracy theories make Michael Moore look like Bill Frist, and one of his most recent films was a documentary espousing the virtues of Fidel Castro. Is that really someone who deserves creative control over a movie that is sure to reopen fresh wounds regarding an extremely delicate subject matter? As much as I admire Stone's work, even I had my doubts.
Yet it turns out that the most shocking thing about "World Trade Center" is how straight it's played. In telling the true story of two Port Authority police officers who were trapped in the wreckage of ground zero and lived to tell about it, the movie is as respectful, non-confrontational and somber as anyone could ask for. This isn't an intricate film about the causes or effects of the attacks, but rather one that takes a microcosm of the event and uses it to say something broader about the human spirit's ability to remain strong in the face of even the most terrible and urgent dangers. It's a simple movie, but often an effective one.
Our heroes are John McLaughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), two family men who are among the first to arrive at the scene of the WTC attacks. When the men enter the concourse between the North and South towers, it is still unclear what's going on. Even after the two towers collapse and the debris traps them in the wreckage, they have no idea about the extent of the damage, or even if their rescue is assured. They are left trapped underneath the rubble - unable to move, unable to leave, unable to do anything besides sit tight and wait.
Unlike this spring's "United 93," this story has a happy ending to offer amid all the pain and destruction. In that way, it's an "easier" movie than the former, which captured all the terror of that day and flung the audience straight into the middle of things with documentary-like intensity. Since we know everything will turn out okay for our protagonists, "World Trade Center" plays out sort of like "Apollo 13," as we watch these characters teeter on the edge of doom as their families worry and pray for the safe return we as viewers know will come.
Still, even though we know how things turn out (both the good and the bad), the film maintains its own brand of intensity throughout its running time.
And make no mistake - although Stone's film is being touted as a flag-waving alternative to more challenging efforts, it's still tough to watch. The difference is that with Stone's film, you get just enough heroism and triumph-of-the-human-spirit inspiration to cushion the blow.
"World Trade Center" is rated PG-13 for profanity and mature themes.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.