World Trade Center is not the movie we might have expected from Oliver Stone on this subject. Most commonly recognized for his bold, broad strokes and contrarian investigations, Stone here abandons the grand sweep for the miniature view. Instead of a full-on exploration of the innumerable facets of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Stone has opted to zero in on individuals and tell their fact-based story with remarkable economy. From its nondescript title on down, World Trade Center serves practically as a Rorschach test. Each viewer can find whatever meaning may be desired.
Technically, Stone's film is an impressive achievement. It is unlikely you will ever again casually use the word "harrowing" after spending so much time trapped with two unlikely survivors in the groaning rubble of the shattered World Trade Center monoliths. The painstakingly accurate story of the two trapped Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael PeÃ?±a), is excruciating to endure, despite widespread knowledge of their situation's fortunate outcome. Their day starts out as an ordinary Tuesday as they troll the bus terminal for the usual panhandlers and teenage runaways. Then the call comes in and McLoughlin's squad rushes downtown, though McLoughlin is the first to admit that there is no plan for a rescue on this scale. Rather than the gung-ho heroes of popular myth, McLoughlin's men are shown as hesitant realists when asked to volunteer to enter the shaky buildings. Once inside, their rescue mission has barely begun before the buildings collapse around them.
Most of the movie is spent with the survivors McLoughlin and Jimeno, their bodies buried and only their faces visible to the audience, although not to each other. With them, we are forced to endure what is unendurable and find shards of hope within the hopelessness. Stone offers respites by crosscutting between the trapped men and their wives and families living in limbo while awaiting word of any sort. These passages do little to amplify the story; they serve merely as palliative cutaways from the men's dire circumstances. More frightening than the darkness and their implied pain are the sounds of the building collapsing and bodies falling around them. (Remember this movie's sound design come awards season.)
Another story strand is that of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), the ex-Marine who feels called by God to go to ground zero and becomes the rescuer who discovers McLoughlin and Jimeno. His declamation "You are our mission" becomes the film's healing moment. This is the idea Stone wants us to take away from his film, along with Cage/McLouglin's voiceover in the epilogue: 9/11 also brought out the goodness in people.
Stone has given us a story about perseverance during wartime. Although the conclusion is heavily sentimentalized, he finds the common ground Americans can rally around: We are, in the final analysis, good people.