The last 10 years have constituted a rather crude metamorphosis for filmmaker Oliver Stone. Stone (“JFK,” “Wall Street”) has busied himself with sultry noir thrillers (“U-Turn”), fawning sports dramas (“Any Given Sunday”) and — most inanely — budget-busting toga epics (“Alexander”).
And now, in a 180-degree political pirouette, Stone gives us “World Trade Center,” his utterly conventional — and, admittedly, intensely moving — salute to two Port Authority officers reclaimed from the smashed remains of 9/11.
Based on real events, the film is pure memorial, suggesting — with its leisurely pace and streaming, eye-dabbing sentiment — a really first-rate Lifetime melodrama. It’s Stone’s best work in some time, but, ironically, the movie that may finally finish him as an auteur.
Nicolas Cage plays Port Authority shift commander John McLoughlin, one of the hundreds of police and emergency personnel who bravely rushed into the burning towers of the World Trade Center. So duty-bound that he hits the alarm clock (ital)before(ital) it rings, McLoughlin is something of a wiped-out soul.
Ominously, McLoughlin’s work-a-day routine is disrupted by reports of a horrible accident downtown. Along with his men, McLoughlin rushes to the scene to find stunned, bloodied victims, two towering infernos and a blizzard of paper and smoke, like some cruel parody of a ticker-tape parade.
“I need volunteers!” McLoughlin barks, determined to lead a rescue team, and he finds three: Officers Will Jimeno (Michael Pena from “Crash”), Dominick Pezzulo (“Crazy/Beautiful” face-guy Jay Hernandez) and Antonio Rodrigues (Armando Riesco).
In the underground gallery between the towers, McLoughlin and his men spend the next few, uncertain minutes collecting oxygen tanks from a supply closet. Then, in a sudden, pulverizing maelstrom of concrete and steel, the South Tower collapses on top of them.
Only by rushing into a fortified elevator shaft in the seconds before the collapse do McLoughlin and two of his men — Jimeno and Pezzulo — escape death.
Still, they’re hardly in the clear. Pinned under concrete slabs and twisted spikes of metal, the men endure all manner of hellish torture: Exploding bullet rounds, suffocating pain and the frightening, earth-shattering collapse of the North Tower some 20 minutes later.
Over the next hours and days, the men survive — in essence — by thinking of their wives. While Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) is back at home, trying to suppress the fears of her children, John stirs in regret (for not savoring his marriage)). Jimeno thinks about his pregnant wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and what to name their first daughter.
Andrea Berloff’s script is full of reveries and painful, intimate moments, which doesn’t always make for great drama, but does keep the audience locked in a raw, quivering state of co-misery. It’s highly reminiscent of the Joaquin Phoenix fireman vehicle “Ladder 49,” which didn’t make for great drama either.
To some, “World Trade Center” will represent a welcome, populist alternative to Paul Greengrass’ visceral, hyper-real “United 93.” Still, the latter, with its broader human scope and ambiguous sympathies, is the more definitive of the two. Because the issues that spawned 9/11 — and ripple from it — won’t go away no matter how loving or devoted our spouses.
>> Rated PG-13 (intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language), 125 min. Grade: B-