WTC opens in peace with a long montage of dawn over Manhattan on the 11th of September 2001, then focuses to follow police sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) taking roll call at the Port Authority. The impact of the first plane stops all the day’s planning, with McLoughlin and his small team, including policeman Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), rushing to the Twin Towers to help evacuate survivors, unaware of the details of what has happened and scrambling for rescue equipment. While making their way in to the scene through an underground foyer, the two men are trapped in a stairwell as the building collapses.
From this point on, Stone switches faithfully back and forth between the trapped men and their suburban families on the outside. The stories run in parallel, as the men talk to one another to prevent slipping off into what might prove a final sleep and the women, surrounded by their friends and families, wait for news and worry and watch the television news. The third arm of the story is the introduction of the rescuers, notably David Karnes (Michael Shannon), who leaves his office job in Connecticut, gets a haircut, puts on his old Marine Corps uniform and strides into the smoking rubble to search for survivors. Astonishingly, although he appears to be a construct of a fevered propagandist, Karnes’ story is true, even if Stone later uses him to articulate America’s desire for revenge and, most unforgivably, by drawing attention to the fact that he later served two terms in Iraq, suggesting a causal link between 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq that has repeatedly been proved to be false. If the approach taken is at times unreliable, the cast at least are solid throughout in what are difficult, unambiguous roles. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal are convincing as the frantic wives, deftly skipping through rocky emotional scenes. Gyllenhall is at her best in a scene in a supermarket, offended by the suggestion of a normal life in the midst of her most terrible crisis. Bello’s moment comes later in the hospital, a mumbled conversation with the mother of another survivor slowly opening into a devastating point of release.
Stone’s best touches illustrate his newfound restraint as he allows the screen to go dark a dozen times throughout the film, long pauses that poetically suggest the fall of the towers and the untold horrors the news cameras couldn’t see. It’s a tribute to Cage and his co-star Pena that they make this tiny enclosure into a stage, with the close-ups on their desperate faces making for riveting viewing. The sense of terror under the rubble is carefully crafted, through moments of shock like when a dead colleague’s gun goes off randomly, through falling dust that might announce a further collapse, with the masterful use of the creaks and screams of falling concrete and metal and the off-camera groans of the two cops, muttering prayers or encouragements. Stone’s most bombastic moment arrives with a wobbly apparition of Jesus carrying a bottle of water that Jimeno sees in a dream and excitedly relates to McLoughlin, who, inspired, subsequently imagines his wife lying beside him in a halo of saintly light. Then we see Jesus again, his arrival having been presaged by long, unbroken shots of a simple wooden cross in a chapel and a leather bound bible opened on the first page of the Book of Revelation. Was this an attack on America or an attack on God? Is there a difference anymore?
WTC has its merits, it is a well made and effectively moving drama, but by focusing on the survival of two men, it sacrifices the stories of the thousands of people, of all faiths and nationalities, who died on the day itself and in the wars that have followed in the subsequent half-decade. By turning his camera away from the wider truths to focus on the only story with a happy ending, Stone refuses us the connections that allow us to frame such an enormous tragedy in our own minds. There is no denying the bravery of those who risked their own lives to help evacuate the buildings and later search for survivors, humanity at its best responding reflexively to humanity at its worst, but WTC concentrates on courage and defiance at the expense of any other analysis, becoming more of a re-enactment, a memento mori, than an honest look at what might turn out to be the defining moment of our times.
There are those who will consider the entire enterprise shameful; a for-profit film that recreates the mass murder of thousands of innocent people for the purposes of feel-good sermonising. What looked like a blockbuster movie come to life when we first watched it on the television news is now just that; a property, a product, remade on an LA backlot with Big Stars and styrofoam rocks and ancillary rights. As a story of survival from a seemingly hopeless situation, WTC pushes all the right buttons and in the right order and that is all it does. Stone’s closing shots of the hobbling heroes at a picnic serve as nothing more than a recast, relocated “Mission Accomplished”, the dust-covered Manhattan streets standing in for the aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. As with that stage-managed victory ceremony, similarly desperate for unwarranted closure and easy validation, Stone is dropping the curtain halfway through the play, having shown us only enough to placate us.