One scene in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center encapsulated the entire film for me. A distraught wife of a missing police officer runs out into the street in front of her home after waiting all day for some news of her husband. The September evening sparkles with lights glowing through the windows of modest homes that rim both sides of the street. Parked cars line both curbs of the narrow street that shoulders its way through the modest neighborhood of working families in Goshen, N.Y., northwest of the city. The street looks so ordinary, so tranquil, so untouched by hellish events a few miles away. This image tries desperately to cling to the illusion of Sept. 10.
As she wanders under the street lamps, the soundtrack murmurs with a montage of garbled, unintelligible news reports, the voices of television news. Too much information; too little meaning. None. Otherwise the neighborhood is deadly silent and peaceful, an ordinary evening on an ordinary street. Appearances deceive. This is a world beyond meaning. Yesterday is a fading memory, tomorrow an abyss. The woman, however, shows no signs of panic. She walks resolutely forward, but with no discernible direction or goal. Does this sound familiar? Does it match your own experience, or your sense of America during these past five years?
Oliver Stone has been insistent that his film of Andrea Berloff’s script is not political. I’m not as confident as he is. The screenplay in fact grew out of the actual experience of two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and William Jimeno (Michael Peña), trapped for hours in the rubble of the ruined towers. No, the film does not go into the political background leading to the “clash of civilizations” that has been the unrelenting mantra of news analysts since that day. It does not indulge in crackpot speculation about conspiracy theories involving oil companies, Israel and the C.I.A. Nor does it offer any judgment on the terrorists as either demonic madmen or deranged idealists fighting for justice. The thing merely happened, and we’re left trying to survive in a world suddenly turned incomprehensible—so Oliver Stone would point out.
But by narrowing its focus precisely on two ordinary men caught up in a convulsion of history, the film captures the bewilderment that has marked the country over the last half-decade. We find ourselves trapped in the dark while murderous events swirl and rumble overhead. Well-intentioned, heroic rescuers wander about helplessly in the rubble. Communications networks are down. They do not know what happened or what to do. Gradually they realize there is nothing they can do. There are no clusters of survivors left to save. The blood donated by thousands will go unused.
Fire and police officials gradually take control of their vast resources, but to do what? In Stone’s point of view, that’s all right. Good intentions and traditional values will see us through. Early in the film, as the extent of the catastrophe becomes evident, McLoughlin says “There is no plan,” unaware of the irony of the statement five years after the event. That, I would argue, is a poignant political message that invites all of us to a bit of reflection during an age disfigured by a carefully manipulated politics of fear.
During the time span of the film, that indefinable but numbing fear had not yet chilled our souls. McLoughlin and Jimeno fear for their lives, of course, but pinned down and nearly motionless as they are, they slip into a forced passivity bordering on fatalism. In this respect, the film most resembles a World War II submarine movie. The sailors trapped below the surface listen for depth charges and the props of hostile destroyers. The hull creaks under the weight of the ocean. At any moment a seam could burst. They cannot radio for help or rescue. They can only wait and hope that something will happen. There is no plan that can get them out of such a fix.
After an idyllic opening sequence showing New York in the beauty of a September dawn, the narrative advances on three levels. In sequential time, McLoughlin and Jimeno prepare for the day’s routine, respond to a call for emergency help and become entombed in the mountain of smoldering debris. This is not a film for the claustrophobic. As they try to encourage each other, the action moves outward to the chaos on the streets, with snowstorms of ash and business forms cascading from the sky, and to the families waiting for some news, one way or the other.
As a third component, the story flashes back to provide snippets of backstory to humanize the trapped officers. Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) has just confirmed her fourth pregnancy. It has taken the couple by surprise, but they will find a way, as they start to think of college tuition bills for their oldest. Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is well along with her second. These details may have been historically accurate, but emphasis on pregnancy in the script heightens the contrast between those who give life and those who wantonly destroy it.
An extraneous subplot sounds Stone’s most overt political theme. Without warning, the scene switches from the chaos of lower Manhattan to a village green and whitewashed church in Wilton, Conn. It is one of those New England scenes that can only be described as aggressively quaint. Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a Marine reservist, marches from the television screen to his church; the Bible is opened to Revelation. He announces that God has destined him to take a role in this earthly version of Armageddon, undergoes a ritual haircut (suicide bombers also remove body hair), dons his fatigues and travels to New York. The police let him pass through the barricades without question. He wanders alone, zombie-like, through the rubble when firefighters and police officers have already been ordered to take a break from what is clearly becoming a pointless search for survivors.
While others appear as victims and heroic rescuers, Karnes embodies the desire for action and even for revenge. He states his intention to volunteer for active duty because the coming conflict will need good men. A print message on an otherwise empty screen at the close of the film indicates that he served two tours in Iraq. Thus Stone makes the connection between 9/11 and Iraq that even President Bush has backed away from. Nonetheless, with his recruiting-poster jaw and spotless uniform, Karnes is the hero of the film, or rather Stone’s caricature of a hero. He calls into the darkness, identifying himself as “United States Marines,” and insists on being addressed as “staff sergeant” by another marine who joins his search.
After the rescue the story continues for another half hour, and this coda takes the film beyond the standard “impossible rescue” genre and provides the most poignant scenes of the film. By late in the evening, the tension for the two families has become unbearable. Both have gradually accepted the tragic outcome for the missing officers. News of their survival reaches the families in garbled form, and the conflicting reports and confused directions to reunite them with their loved ones add cruel uncertainty to their relief. They dangle, helpless, between elation and despair.
The film ends with a lugubrious voice-over comment about the “good people” who came forward that day. Yes, of course. The record shows heroism in abundance during those darkest hours. The ordinary people, members of police, fire and ambulance teams, deserve a monument for what they did the day the towers fell. “World Trade Center,” however, uses them as a distraction from the whole truth. As we praise our heroes, it is also worth remembering the open scar that still leers at passersby, the endless wrangling of state and city governments, the Port Authority and private investors, insurance companies and survivors, the dithering of politicians here and the exploitation of hatred elsewhere. Oliver Stone has missed the point. The courage and decency of ordinary people is not enough. Their heroism risks being wasted because, as the character said so well, “There is no plan.”