When I heard that Oliver Stone was doing a movie about Sept. 11, I expected his trademark conspiracies wrapped in enigmas. Certainly, we’d learn how the CIA spooks secretly started planning the terrorist attacks soon after they assassinated Kennedy.
Not this time. Stone plays it uncharacteristically straight and unabashedly patriotic for his monumental tribute to American heroism, “World Trade Center.” A lot of critics are discussing, as they did with the opening of “United 93,” whether it’s too soon to revisit the devastating terrorist strikes. I don’t think timing is the issue anymore. A lot of people just don’t want to go there again, and they never will. A friend told me she’d watched “Schindler’s List” and was glad because she’d learned more about the Holocaust. But she’d LIVED through Sept. 11 and doesn’t see what Stone and writer Andrea Berloff had to teach her about it. I get that. We all saw those planes explode into the towers. We all watched in shock when the towers fell. TV showed us those images again and again until we were numb to them. When cosmic artist Peter Max came to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in February with his tribute to firefighters lost at the Trade Center, the rows of faces were overwhelming, like fingers scratching at a wound. But what Stone’s film does is similar to what Steven Spielberg did with “Schindler’s List.” He found a rare upbeat story amid the tragedy, a story about two cops trapped in the rubble, that’s intimate and personal. The result is a minor masterpiece — a lofty piece of historic storytelling with such overwhelming emotional momentum that you almost don’t notice the missteps that keep it from being even better. The biggest misstep was casting Nicolas Cage as one of the trapped cops. It underscored what a smart move Paul Greengrass made when he hired unknowns for “United 93.” We want to see real people here, or actors so good they disappear into their roles. Cage doesn’t disappear. Wearing a bushy mustache and dusty police uniform and torturing his way through a Brooklyn accent as Sgt. John McLoughlin, Nicolas Cage is still Nicolas Cage. That’s not a slam at Cage. I’m a fan. But I believed him much more as the international gun dealer in “Lord of War” than I do as this hard-nosed New York cop. Maybe I’ve known too many New York cops. Michael Peña, who has experience playing cops in the TV series “The Shield,” comes off a bit more authentic as his trapped rookie partner, officer Will Jimeno. We meet McLoughlin and Jimeno on what seems like another typical morning. The panhandlers are at the usual statue and have to be cajoled into leaving. Tourists need directions. Then the call comes in that a plane has hit one of the Trade Center towers and the cops are dispatched in a bus to the scene. “We gotta evacuate da towa,” McLoughlin tells his team in his on-again off-again accent. Before they can do more than collect oxygen tanks, the building falls. The special effects here are extraordinary as the crowd runs, and we see, hear and feel the collapse from the inside. For these few seconds alone, the movie is worth seeing on the big screen. McLoughlin and Jimeno end up far under the rubble, getting pinned under concrete and beams. They’re trapped and helpless, as fireballs whiz by. They try to survive by keeping themselves alert. The minutes stretch to hours, and they pass the time talking about movies, their families, the details of internal bleeding and the growing thirst that’s driving them mad. Meanwhile, we see how their families are trapped as well, waiting for word they fear will bring more grief. Only at the end does Stone come on too strong, moralizing with a voice-over from Cage about the truths he’d learned about the nature of courage. We’d already seen that courage. We didn’t need to be hit over the head about it. Still, neither Cage’s uncomfortable fit nor Stone’s occasional moments of excess even come close to ruining a film that understands the subtleties of trauma and survival and makes us feels as if we’re experiencing Sept. 11 for the first time. That’s not an easy experience. But ultimately it’s an enriching one. details World Trade Center Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello Director: Oliver Stone Playing at: Tinseltown, Cinemark, Carmike, Chapel Hills Rated: PG-13 (for intense peril and emotional content, disturbing images, profanity) Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes Grade: A-