A toned-down Oliver Stone finds uplift in the rubble of the Twin Towers.

One Day in September 

A toned-down Oliver Stone finds uplift in the rubble of the Twin Towers.

World Trade Center is about just that—the attacks on, and the collapse of, the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. But 45 minutes in, a viewer might easily forget the movie is set during that nightmarish day. There is little talk of terrorism and scant suggestion that a mighty nation felt suddenly vulnerable and besieged. The filmmaker does not cut away to discussions of fury and vengeance; the televisions are on everywhere, but there are few whispers of who did this or why or how they will pay for what they have done. Instead, we are in but two places: trapped beneath beams and girders and concrete and ash with Port Authority Police Department officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, and in the dens of their families awaiting the inevitable grim news that they're among the thousands to have lost kin in the World Trade Center. For all the grim baggage it carries with it to the multiplex, World Trade Center might as well be a movie about any two men buried beneath the surface trying to stay alive as their wives and children and parents and friends believe them dead.

The sole nod to the impending War on Terror, which would become as much a catchphrase and brand name as a military action, are the sequences involving Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon). He's a real-life Marine who witnesses the attacks on television and marches out of his suit-and-tie job and off to Ground Zero.

No doubt you already know that Oliver Stone directed World Trade Center, as there was much harrumphing when it was announced that he was attached to the project. Surely, his would be a work fueled by paranoia and rage — a we-dunnit, perhaps, or a bloodthirsty act of retribution by a man who puts the "maniac" in megalomaniac. That it's not even close is news enough; not since Heaven and Earth has Stone made something so restrained and, dare one say, contemplative. We don't even see the planes hitting the buildings, only their shadows as they pass overhead. This is ground-level storytelling, where rumbles and thuds say more than anything the director chooses to show, or not show.

Which is not to diminish its impact or import: World Trade Center is the first Oliver Stone movie not about Oliver Stone. It's about Jimeno (Crash's Michael Peña) and McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage, looking gaunt and weary), who walked into the towers on September 11 and were pulled out on September 12 by firemen, paramedics and Marines who doubted that anyone survived the buildings' collapse. It's also about their wives — Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who cannot imagine a life without her husband, and Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello), who already lives her life as though her husband is a remote, absent figure — and their families, who strain and crack just a little as the hours pass. And it's about the men who rescued Jimeno and McLoughlin, including Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley), a disgraced paramedic with an expired license who quietly redeems himself by doing a job he thought he'd never do again.

The movie has little to do with the enormity of the day; fact is, most of what we see are the faces of Peña and Cage, their eyes the only things visible beneath soot and smoke. Heroism, the film suggests, also involves seizing the chance to fix a life rather than taking the easy way out by closing one's eyes.

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