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World Trade Center

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/08/06 22:14:01

"Touching, but all too disappointing."
3 stars (Just Average)

Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” is a sharply made yet surprisingly mundane work that manages to reduce the horrors of September 11, 2001, to movie-of-the-week fluff. There are many powerful moments to be found here, but their impact is often diluted by weaker scenes that belong in the work of a lesser filmmaker.

Where is the Oliver Stone we know so well, the Oliver Stone afraid to plow ahead with energy and passion for his messages? “World Trade Center” is a film with so very little so say; it observes a few of-the-moment ideas, but is otherwise commentary-free. It is a movie that is cautionary with its every move, so eager to tell someone else’s story that the filmmaker’s own voice gets lost along the way.

That story, as compiled by first-time screenwriter Andrea Berloff, is that of two survivors of the WTC attack, and of those connected to them. It is easy to understand why this story was chosen to be told - it provides a happy ending to one of the nation’s worst days, allowing us all to cling on to whatever hope we can find in such a bleak event. Perhaps this is a response to those who cry “too soon!” upon hearing word of a 9/11 movie. Unlike “United 93” (and its made-for-cable counterpart, “Flight 93”), this kind of silver-lining story can be made as an appeasement, as if to say while it may be too soon to deal with the darkness of the day, the time is always right to discuss one of the rare brighter sides.

In doing so, however, Stone and Berloff reduce the entire day to a generic made-for-TV feel-gooder; replace cops trapped under the rubble of Tower Two with, say, miners trapped after a cave-in or a baby rescued from a hole in the ground, and you still wind up with more or less the same movie. Berloff’s script provides a simple set-up, followed by the tragedy, the initial efforts to survive, cutaways to worried loved ones (reduced to melodramatic hand-wringing), more survival efforts, the rescue mission, and an epilogue which wraps everything up neatly. ((Not to be misread, we even get too-cheap narration in the final frames reminding us how we saw “the best and worst” of humanity that day, thus underlining the point with a thick magic marker.)

With Stone at the helm, this is all competently made - indeed, many scenes, especially late in the film, are honestly powerful. And there’s something to admire about a movie that dares reduce the most famous, most analyzed day in modern American history to the viewpoint of a handful of Port Authority cops, folks who never even knew the other tower was ever hit. The earliest scenes have a grace about them, as we experience that September morning through their eyes alone. Confusion, fear, and bravery mix together into something special, and it comes across as a welcome tribute to the men and women who died trying to help others. We know they’re scared without anyone ever saying a word, which makes us admire their actions even more.

For a good chunk of the film, we stick with this group of cops (led by Patrol Sgt. John McLoughlin, as played by Nicolas Cage, one of the few recognizable faces in the cast), and it seems as if this approach might just work. But then we begin cutting away - to the wives, to concerned citizens across the country, even to cheap stock footage of people around the globe watching news reports of the towers falling.

It’s here that “World Trade Center” begins to fail as a movie, here where Berloff’s screenplay abandons its single-perspective notions and instead turns to ham-fisted formula. The scenes with Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal as two nervous spouses are rarely given the opportunity to affect us on the same level as the cops’ story. It has its moments (how to deal with upset children, the need to do something to take one’s mind off the agony of waiting), but the overall framing of these scenes is nothing you couldn’t find in a movie produced for Lifetime. These away stories make sense from a storytelling perspective - you can’t just show guys trapped under rubble for two hours, can you? - but in finding a way to work around this problem, Berloff and Stone take the easiest, laziest way out, providing us with hackneyed material.

Most curious about the cutaway portions of the story are the scenes that show us folks not related in any way to the cops. We follow the path of Marine Staff Sergeant Karnes (Michael Shannon) as he leaves his day job to help join the search mission, and this makes sense, as it provides a little more depth to this rescue story. But what of the guy in Sheboygan, whom we see for a few seconds reacting to the network news, then only see one more time, at film’s end, handing out hot dogs at Ground Zero? Obviously the intent is to show how the news of the attacks affected many Americans, yet these are the only two stories we get of this, and only one of them has any actual bearing on the plot. The other is filler so awkwardly inserted into the story that it sticks out like a sore thumb. Were more scenes edited out somewhere?

And yet, despite all of these problems, I’m more than willing to give “World Trade Center” a recommendation, as it does make its way through the shakier bits to come off as a highly moving piece. The cast - which also includes Michael Pena, Jay Hernandez, and Frank Whaley, among others - brings a somber reality to the proceedings, and Stone’s masterful direction allows the story to impact us on its own terms.

Would we have been better off with a more Oliver Stone-esque movie? I’m not sure. While I’m glad to see Stone respecting those whose lives he’s representing here instead of allowing his own politics to get in the way, I’m also certain that had we gotten “Oliver Stone’s 9/11,” there’d be a lot more discussion going on, and for the better. As it is, “World Trade Center” moves us but then fades from memory all too quickly. From a filmmaker famous (infamous?) for having so much to say, to see so little said with a movie centering on such an important topic is quite a letdown. “World Trade Center” is moving, tender, and disappointingly shallow.

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