Oliver Stone's insidiously godawful, ostensibly apolitical 9/11 exploitation picture requires its audience to retreat into a sort of amnesiac amber. Forget today's bloody headlines, it urges us, or how neoconservatives repurposed the tragedy of 9/11 as the long-lusted-after excuse to attack a nation that had zippo to do with the atrocity itself.
To be effective as a feelgood movie about the worst of days, it's also necessary for audiences to wallow in a dubious nostalgia. It willfully ignores the fact that glossing over the political significance of this most horridly political event amounts to nothing more than simple artistic cowardice, while also using the genuine bravery and suffering of its real-life protagonists as a sort of critical extortion.
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 point of view is informed by equal parts inchoate self-righteousness, relentless Christian imagery, and impotent fist-shaking, all of it personified by Marine Sergeant Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon).
Lantern-jawed, blue-eyed, and a fanatically patriotic 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 the film's end, an entirely unnecessary title card informs us that the real Karnes served two tours in Iraq, the inclusion of which, 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 or that the filmmaker views Karnes as a well-meaning dupe of his superiors' empire dreams. The first possibility is simply annoying, the other has elements of high tragedy, but apparently neither has occurred to the filmmakers.
Otherwise, World Trade Center accomplishes one amazing thing — it makes 9/11 boring. It's not the fault of Cage, who plays McLoughlin with a subtly self-doubting brand of taciturn. Nor is it because of Peña's Jimeno — also a heartfelt sketch — although one wonders why his white counterpart is granted repeated backstory flashbacks while the Latino Jimeno gets just one quickie bit of exposition.
No, what's wrong here is 100-percent Stone. He opens WTC at dawn: a montage of Manhattan street scenes, with cops going through their routines. It's effectively nerve-wracking stuff in light of what's to come. Glad for small mercies, we see the towers' collapse only 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.
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 dead bodies — the movie downshifts into a flattened style meant to pass for Seriousness. Between scenes of McLoughlin and Jimeno trying to stay awake in the dark and the rubble, their stoic wives — respectively played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal — fret from their bucolic New Jersey and New York state homes. (Bello is able to understand the pain of losing someone only after being schooled in doing so by a black woman. The Black Savant lives.)
Meanwhile, it's really hard to listen to McLoughlin pointedly list all the disasters the N.Y. Ports 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. Hard for anyone but the filmmakers, apparently.
But in the end, none of this really seems to matter. All Stone is doing is using 9/11 to again mourn the loss of mythical white American innocence for what one assumes will be a predominately white boomer audience. And no doubt turning a pretty penny doing it.