The History Place - Movie Review

World Trade Center

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

The early reviews I read of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center labeled the fifth-year-anniversary film "too Hollywood." That, I suppose, is a fair statement. The movie does focus on one of the few happy endings to emerge from the overwhelming tragedy of September 11. On the other hand, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are likely to be the defining events of America's 21st Century. Who better to capture the uniquely American mix of sorrow, anger and renewed optimism than the director who summed up the debacle of Vietnam in Platoon and the enigma of the Kennedy assassination in JFK?

Furthermore, good, solid technical considerations tended to dictate Stone's decision to focus on two of the only 20 survivors recovered from the gargantuan mass of rubble. First, by bringing the deaths of thousands and the loss of billions of dollars down to the personal agony and ecstasy of just two families, Stone humanizes what otherwise might be akin to a documentary. He is wise to leave that to The History Channel.

Second, by selecting the story of two survivors, he gained access to their first-hand memories of the ordeal of being buried alive. While some of the dialog between Port Authority policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) slows the film's pace, Stone rightly realized that this was how to place us into the claustrophobic hell in which they were painfully trapped.

The two Port Authority policemen were among hundreds of firefighters and other first-responders who unhesitatingly rushed into the burning Trade Center to help with the evacuation. Like nearly 500 NY firefighters and dozens of other policemen, they were taken by surprise as first one, and then the other, soaring tower imploded. Cage's McLoughlin, the sergeant in charge of his team, thinks fast and orders his crew into an elevator shaft. These shafts, he later informs Jimeno, were the strongest components of the two towers.

Even so, their day and night encased in the rubble alternate between quiet hours of fighting through the pain and struggling to stay awake--"If you go to sleep, you might never wake up," McLoughlin warns Jimeno--and periodic bursts of total terror. In one such harrowing scene, the heat from overhead flames is so intense that it sets off the live rounds in a dead colleague's sidearm.

Meanwhile, back at the pairs' homesteads, wives, children and extended families wrestle with uncertainty, grasping at straws of hope. Jimeno's wife is pregnant. Her family struggles with the added anxiety that she or her unborn baby may be among the collateral victims of the Trade Center attack. In a moment of particularly intense pathos, Jimeno, the pain in his legs being steadily replaced by numbness, shifts between hallucinations of Jesus carrying a bottle of spring water and lucid moments when he tells McLoughlin to radio out that the baby should be named Olivia.

One supporting character deserving special mention is Marine Staff Sergeant Karnes, a civilian who dons his old camouflage fatigues and walks into ground zero as if he were Rudy Giulliani. While most of the rescue teams have bivouacked for the night, Karnes and another Marine continue climbing among the twisted girders and concrete blocks. They are the first to hear Jimeno banging a water pipe. They are the first to make contact. A post-script tells us that Karnes reenlisted following this daring rescue mission and has since served two tours of duty in Iraq.

Once the two police officers are located, the tension mounts. Family members, who drove into New York under the false impression that their men had walked out of the buildings, endure the added anxiety of waiting at Bellevue for news of their actual rescue. Stone's recreation of their rescue drives home the fact that the two men--and the dozens more who participated in that rescue--were never in greater danger than during the recovery operation itself. Working in spaces that make a Kentucky coal mine seem spacious and airy, firemen and paramedics painstakingly remove the debris and simultaneously administer medical assistance as a multitude of injuries are revealed inch by painful inch.

In the end, both men underwent multiple surgeries. In McLoughlin's case, the film's postscript informs us, doctors induced a six-day coma in order to perform 23 successive surgeries. Before that medically-induced coma, McLoughlin tells his wife as they wheel his gurney into the OR, "You kept me alive down there."

Well, maybe that's Hollywood talking. But it was music to my ears.

Rated PG 13 - For some disturbing images and language.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

World Trade Center - Official Website
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