Nominally about the undeniable courage and endurance of two New York Port Authority cops — John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) — the film’s inchoate core of all-American righteousness, relentless Christian imagery and impotent fist-shaking is actually personified by Marine Sgt. Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon). Lantern-jawed, blue-eyed and a fanatically patriotic Connecticut Baptist, Karnes gets a calling from God himself to go to New York, save people and afterwards proclaim that “Somebody’s gonna pay for this!”
By film’s end, and after an “uplifting” epilogue, an entirely unnecessary title card informs us that the real Karnes served two tours in Iraq. The inclusion of that detail, whether the filmmaker wants to admit it or not, is commentary. Which suggests that either the once left-leaning Stone is pulling a Christopher Hitchens (thus the film’s gushing endorsement by far-right wags), or that the director views Karnes — inexplicably filmed through distorted lenses and at low angles usually reserved for movie psycho killers — as a well-meaning dupe of his superiors’ empire dreams. The first possibility is simply annoying, the other has elements of high tragedy, but Stone and company seem to entertain both, perhaps in the cynical name of hedging their bets.
Otherwise, World Trade Center accomplishes one amazing thing: It makes Sept. 11 boring. It’s not the fault of Andrea Berloff’s script, which in surer hands might have provided a decent armature. Nor is it the fault of Cage, who plays McLoughlin with a subtly self-doubting brand of taciturn that negates the actor’s tendency toward freakshow displays. Nor is it Peña’s Jimeno — also a heartfelt sketch — although one wonders why his white counterpart is granted film-long backstory flashbacks while the Latino Jimeno only warrants one quickie bit of exposition.
No, what’s wrong is 100 percent Stone. Center opens at dawn, with a montage of Manhattan street scenes — cops going through their routines and so on. It’s effectively nerve-wracking stuff in light of what’s to come. Then again,anything would be nerve-wracking in light of what’s to come.
Glad for small mercies, we only see the Center’s collapse from the limited POV of McLoughlin and Jimeno, who, after rushing to the Trade Center’s lobby, end up buried and immobile under tons of rubble and waiting for rescue.
After its money shots — including a single person jumping from the Towers in tasteful long shot and the urban abattoir of Ground Zero rendered as pleasingly free of bloodied dead bodies — the movie downshifts into a flattened style that’s meant to pass for seriousness with a big “S,” but instead calls attention to itself by way of its very dullness.
Between scenes of McLoughlin and Jimeno trying to stay awake in the darkness and rubble, their remarkably stoic wives — played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively — fret about their spouses from inside their bucolic New Jersey and New York State homes. (Bello’s character is only able to understand the fear and pain of possibly losing someone after being helped in doing so by an African-American woman. The Black Savant lives.)
Meanwhile, it’s really hard to listen to McLoughlin pointedly list all the disasters (both natural and terrorist-based) that the Port Authority was prepared to deal with — but “not this” — without also thinking of that “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” memo the Bush administration ignored. It’s hard for anyone but the filmmakers, apparently. Or maybe this is another, slyer bit of that political commentary the filmmakers claim not to be making.
In the end, all Stone really seems to be up to is using Sept. 11 to again mourn the loss of mythical white American innocence for what one assumes will be a predominantly white Boomer audience. And no doubt turning a pretty penny doing it.