World Trade Center

While the survivors 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.

World Trade Center

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jay Hernandez
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-08-09 (General release)
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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.