In the first 15 minutes, you see an ominous shadow of a jet airliner careening downward toward a target – the Twin Towers. A flashback brings you to five years earlier, as you, and the rest of the world, watched the second plane crash into the adjacent tower.
And yet, in the movie, there is no cut to a shot of the plane striking the buildings.
This is a deliberate choice by director Oliver Stone, and one that should help cement the idea that the film is not exploitative.
Stone could have easily inserted a shot of the jet striking the Twin Towers, but it wouldn’t serve a purpose (remember that flashback you’ll get) and, more to the point, such a shot would have been in bad taste.
The film is based on the true experiences of two Port Authority cops, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno – played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pe/a, respectively – who were among the first to respond after the World Trade Center was attacked.
But before they get a chance to evacuate either of the buildings, the first tower collapses, pinning them both under slabs of concrete 20 feet below the surface. For the rest of the film, the two struggle to stay awake, and thus stay alive, by talking to each other.
Since the film is essentially a long conversation between two men, performances are key to making the story successful, and both Cage and Pe/a are well up to the task.
Pe/a, as he did in last year’s “Crash,” steals nearly every scene he’s in. His character is more flamboyant and talkative than Cage’s, but it is in his quieter moments, as when he writes a love note to his wife and begins to cry, that he truly shines.
Cage’s performance as McLoughlin is subtle. He plays McLoughlin as a quiet man who, as he says, “doesn’t smile much.”
But McLoughlin is not a shell. His most revealing scene comes at the end of the film when he has a vision of his wife and he asks her, “Did I love you good enough?”
It is in moments like these that we are allowed to glimpse beneath McLoughlin’s rigid exterior and understand his thoughts and heart as he struggles to survive.
What surprised me most about “World Trade Center” is how restrained the film is. McLoughlin and Jimeno’s story is not exploited for political purposes and the horror of the attacks is not glorified.
Instead, Stone tells an inspirational story about two ordinary men who managed to survive one of the most horrific days in our history.
But the story is also a somber reminder of how many died during 9/11.
It is this mixture of tragedy and inspiration that makes “World Trade Center” such a compelling film.