September 11, 2001 was one of those days that cleave history in two, forever separating the Before and the After as irrecovably as it separated those who were lost from those who survived. As we watched it over and over on television, trying to make some sense of the senseless, people said the same thing, over and over, “It’s like a movie.”
And now, it is a movie, or, so far, three movies with certainly more to come.
That is a part of a tradition that goes back to sagas around the campfire and paintings on the walls of caves. We create stories to help us make sense of our past and to think about our hopes for the future. We are still telling stories about courage and loss through the lens of every major conflict in history. In the last few years we’ve seen major, big-budget movies about great tragic conflicts from the Trojan War through Operation Desert Storm. Their stories about about sacrifice and heroism are a part of the way we make sense of the world.
That very tradition, combined with events that still seem surreal to us, make it difficult for this particular take on the events of 9/11 to feel satisfying as a matter of narrative or drama. Unlike the recent United 93, which adopted an intimate, documentary style for the story of the passengers who fought back and overpowered the terrorists, this movie takes the Hollywood approach to its story of the rescue of trapped Port Authority police.
Where United 93 used unfamiliar faces to allow us to feel we were seeing the real story, World Trade Center gives us Oscar-Winner and Hollywood royalty Nicolas Cage. Where United 93 told us nothing more about the characters than was revealed in the real-time unfolding of events onscreen, making everything that happened disorienting and surprising, World Trade Center gives us the traditional Hero introduction to the characters, with flashbacks to show us their family relationships.
The film begins by telling us it is based on “actual” recollections of the people involved. The use of that word exemplifies the kind of underlining that makes it feel clumsy.
The traditional approach to telling this story only comes across as off-register because it makes it seem — like a movie. Instead of making us feel connected to the real-life events of 9/11, its rhythms and cadences recall other movies, disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, or action movies like Die Hard.
There is a disconnect, too. We are set up for heroes, and then the focus of the story is more on the endurance and anxiety of the main characters than on their heroism. And the title leads us to expect something broader and more all-encompassing. There were thousands of stories in the World Trade Center. This movie focuses on one rescue mission, a deeply affecting story but not as transcendent as its title and set-up prepare us for.
Cage and Crash’s Michael Pena play John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, Port Authority cops called in to the World Trade Center without knowing exactly what the emergency was. “We prepared for everything,” McLoughlin says. “But not for this.”
They are first responders. They take a deep breath, leave nighsticks and hats behind and grab some helmets and oxygen tanks to go into the World Trade Center complex to rescue people trapped inside. But very quickly the buildings come down and their group is trapped. And soon, they are the only survivors.
At home, McLoughlin’s wife (Maria Bello) and children and Jimeno’s pregant wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and four-year-old daughter wait for news. And in Connecticut, a former Marine named Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) gets a haircut, puts on his fatigues, and goes to the World Trade Center to see if he can find any survivors.
As McLoughlin and Jimeno lie crushed under slabs of rock, with bursts of flame, exploding bullets, and falling debris, they talk to each other. They provide companionship and support and urge each other to stay awake. They talk about their families. They talk about G.I. Jane and how it said pain was your friend because at least you know you’re allive. They talk about Jesus. They don’t know that the rescue team has gone home for the night. And they don’t know that Karnes has come to the site because he believes that is what God wants him to do.
Director Oliver Stone treats the story and the characters with respect, avoiding the consipiracy themes of some of his earlier movies and focusing on the story of the two injured cops and their families. There are powerful moments, the dazed wounded, lurching through the streets like zombies, paper, ash, and debris raining down around them, the collapse of the buildings, a quiet “There’s a lot of guys not with them” from a cop as he sees only a small fraction of those who went out coming back to the station.
And there is one scene of true brilliance and shattering impact as a mother waiting for news of her son (Viola Davis) recalls that the last time she saw him she scolded him for missing dinner.
But as a whole, it is uneven, its very respect for the “actual” stories that it feels out of balance, the personal information about a rescue worker with a history of substance abuse a distraction rather than a contribution to the whole.
There will be dozens of movies about the events of that day, maybe more. This one will fit better as one tile in a larger mosaic. But now, as one of the first, it does not have enough distance to give us a clearer perspective. And it does not have the right balance to make this part of the story resonate in a way that will help to heal or illuminate the events of 9/11/2001. There are times that a small part of the story can help us to understand the whole, through a true story like Schindler’s List or a fictional version like Saving Private Ryan. Davis’ speech reminds us of that, and shows us what this movie could have, should have been.
Parents should know that this movie is about the terrorist attacks and tragic events of September 11, 2001 and it includes material that is not graphic but very disturbing, including the death of thousands of people, suicide, and severe injury and the terror and devastating grief of family members. There are brief sexual references, including a prostitute, and characters use some strong language. Strengths of the movie include the portrayal of diverse people working together, the ideals of honor, courage, and sacrifice displayed, and the role of faith in some of the character’s lives.
Families who see this movie should talk about their own experiences on 9/11. They should also talk about the choices made by the characters and about the regrets they expressed. Someone says they could not have lived with themselves if they had not gone in — that’s who they were. What does that mean? What is it you want to make sure to say to those you care about most? When will you say it?