The main thing is, when you leave the theater, you leave with a sense of hope and love.
— Will Jimeno, Newsweek
It’s before dawn when Port Authority Police Department Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) wakes. He showers, gathers up his badge and wallet, then leaves his wife Donna (Maria Bello) in bed, apparently asleep. But as this first scene in World Trade Center reveals, her eyes are open as he walks out the door. They share a life and a set of habits. He goes to work, she manages their home, and at some point, as she says later in the film, they “stopped seeing each other.”
The start of Oliver Stone’s film — “based on actual accounts of surviving participants” — emphasizes the routines that shaped so many lives the morning of September 11th. Other PA cops ride the train into the city or drive across the bridge; they trade jokes, argue over Derek Jeter. They get by. Following his daily 90-minute commute to work, John sends his men forth to patrol midtown bus stations and clear panhandlers off the sidewalks. No soundtrack music, no camera swoops, just diurnal business.
And then, simply and gigantically, their lives change. As new guy Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) gazes upward, the shadow of a plane passes over a building. Cut to headquarters, where a boom echoes through the building, which shudders, slightly. John and his men are dispatched to scene: they emerge from their bus to see a body falling from one of the towers, a gaping hole seared into its side. They gather up gear and look to John for orders, presuming they will “help.” Not one of them has a clue as to how immense and impossible this task will be.
The film’s focus on two men and their families refigures the vastness of that day in terms that seem merely operatic. While John quickly makes the decision to head into Tower Two with a small team, in the increasingly melodramatic turns of this movie, their confused journey to the spot where the building will collapse feels like “destiny.” While the other team members are killed in the crush of steel and fire and dust, Will and John survive, for hours (they will be numbers 18 and 19 of just 20 survivors retrieved from Ground Zero), their limbs pinned, their chests smashed under slabs of concrete, their insides bleeding. Unable to move, they can only wait.
While they lie within this well of shadows and shards, the film shows tv viewers around the world, briefly united in horror and incredulity, watching iconic CNN footage (insta-logoed: “America Under Attack”). The camera pans a harrowing recreation of Ground Zero while a tv broadcaster pronounces, “This is complete chaos and utter hell that has come to Manhattan.” Even as such images might knee-jerk viewers into their own memories, the movie provides the correlative anguish of PAPD families, not knowing what’s happening “down there.” Donna’s son accuses her of not caring enough because she’s not down at the site searching through rubble. Will’s wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), five months pregnant, ponders how to tell her young daughter that her father isn’t coming home. Seeking distraction, she goes to the drugstore, its aisles empty and too bright. Here she stops herself: sputtering, “What am I doing here, walking around CVS like there’s nothing wrong?” (The ghost-town streets provide even more stark context as she rides home in the car, waiting at a red light with no traffic in sight: the city has shut down — except for the CVS, apparently.)
John and Will also wonder what they thought they’re doing and the lack of information that propelled their initial efforts. Between despairing and raging, they essentially talk each other into staying awake. “You know that movie GI Jane?” asks Will. Yeah, says John, “with what’s-her-name.” Will reminds him of “that part where the drill sergeant says, ‘Pain is good, pain is your friend,'” because when you feel it, “You know you’re alive.”
World Trade Center‘s heroism is defined by their pain and immobility rather than comic-booky action. On one hand, this demonstrates the film’s rudimentary politics: the U.S is the victim, abject and determined to survive, without context. On another hand, it grants the cops time to think through their own lives and expectations, staging the event as a profoundly (and only) personal trauma.
The first responders accomplished nothing, as John laments during a moment of despair: they lost friends and bearings (as he is pulled from the site, Will wonders, “What happened to the buildings?”). The film visualizes their efforts to rebuild coherence, via variously assigned flashbacks: when Will mentions his unborn child, the film cuts to him and Allison, seeming to float in a celestial-white-lit bedroom memory. When John remembers the kitchen he’s rebuilding, you see Donna looking into the unfinished space, plastic sheets and carpentry tools visible, as she imagines John showing their son how to build cabinets.
Perhaps most strikingly, the film makes visible Will’s earnest faith. “You wouldn’t believe what I saw,” he exults on waking from a short, dangerous sleep, and you’ve seen it too: a gorgeously backlit “Jesus with a water bottle,” specifically, a commercial spring water bottle clutched in his sacred hand, dutifully translated from Jimeno’s “account.” Supremely subjective and a little strange, this image of Jesus is briefly transposed onto a shot of Donna cast in wondrous morning light, as if merging the men’s thoughts.
The sheer oddness of this image stands in stark contrast to the film’s other major metaphor, even more ham-handedly literalized and embodied by Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon). Hearing about the attack while in Wilton, Connecticut, he prays for guidance from Christ (a looming cross fills the screen), then takes time to get a buzz-cut before he heads south. A kind of military guardian angel, he gazes on Ground Zero and proclaims, “It’s like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what were not ready to see.” The guy who hears him say this looks baffled, and Karnes marches off into the smoke, seeking his own destiny. “We’re Marines,” he announces on finding numbers 18 and 19, “You are our mission.”
It’s an outsized, quintessentially Stoneian moment (think: Willem Dafoe dying with arms outstretched in Platoon), burdened with mythic meaning and, not incidentally, reintroducing the political context the film has so strenuously resisted. John goes on to describe the “goodness” of the rescuers, the extraordinary unity forced by grief and shock. But once the film looks beyond that day, it finds discord and difficulty, traditional means of masculine self-definition. According to an epigraph, Karnes goes on to seek “vengeance” during two tours in Iraq. Almost incongruous here, perhaps this note opens a door for Stone’s next war-on-terror chapter, modeled on Born on the Fourth of July, the chapter where noble warriors confront the deceptions involved in linking Iraq and 9/11.