I had already forgotten what a relief it was to realize, about halfway through, that United 93 was going to be a great film. A movie about 9/11 could, indeed, honor the victims without trafficking in jingoism; it could turn a plot defect (everyone dies) into a stirring virtue (democratic heroism); it could tell a dramatic story without feeding off viewers' already pitched emotions. As it turns out, United 93 defused fears that should be very much present as World Trade Center opens around the country. Oliver Stone's movie (written by Andrea Berloff) is exactly what everyone was terrified United 93 was going to be. It's crass, lazy—and worse—it represents a distinctly evangelical form of pro-American fervor.
World Trade Center begins as all these movies must: with the morning of September 11. The hijackers are nowhere to be found, but there's a port authority sergeant named John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), turning off his alarm and taking a modest shower behind steamed glass. Another cop named Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who's a bit of a goofball, drives into Manhattan with Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America" blasting on the radio. (I'm not saying a Hispanic cop would never listen to country, but the selection seems more like a shout-out to Middle America than a thoughtful character choice.) Still, for a few precious minutes, World Trade Center isn't such a terrible film. We see incidental shots of lower Manhattan that don't usually make it into big Hollywood movies. The dawn light is subdued. And then things quickly get ridiculous.
When the port authority unit is called down to the towers, Stone gives us not one or two but three heroic roll calls, one on top of another: first when the cops slam shut their nameplated locker doors, again when individual officers are assigned to a potentially deadly duty, then once more as a few brave souls step forward to volunteer to evacuate one of the towers. We aren't allowed much contact with the doomed cops (who wants to invest in characters that are just gonna get crushed? the selfish reasoning seems to go), but we get plenty of face time with manly McLoughlin and cutup Jimeno, who will, in short order, be our sole companions under 20 feet of rubble.
These names are incessantly intoned, and recited, and hyped all over again, but when the film ventures outside this tight circle, it's almost rigidly demure. At times, it seems as though World Trade Center is going to be the first-ever feature film to be composed entirely of reaction shots. Before we see a bloodied face, there's a shot of someone blanching at it, often in belabored slow motion. A character claims that the same things keep being broadcast on TV—the shot of the plane going into the second tower, presumably, or one of the towers collapsing—but the camera only rarely grazes television screens, and it somehow never lands on those once-ubiquitous images. Instead, Stone substitutes a montage of people around the world reacting in stoic sympathy, and a rotation of international television anchors, steadily reporting and analyzing the news. Whereas at the time everyone seemed addicted to cold infusions of reality, now we see everything through several rounds of prudish mediation. Except—and here's where I started feeling especially cynical—World Trade Center does include a zoom to the infamous image of a jumper flailing as he falls 50 stories in a split second. Stone seems convinced it's automatically courageous to break this explicit taboo—but god forbid we be reminded what it was like to actually watch the towers collapse.
Meanwhile, Stone continually returns to the rubble. His tremendous miscalculation is that people who are trying to stay alive while being crushed by pounds of concrete and pinned in by jutting metal are simply not going to say anything interesting. (We aren't talking about a Beckett play here.) McLoughlin and Jimeno repeat variations on "I can't move my legs" and "Stay awake" and "How's the pain?'; they reminisce about movies and TV shows; they float into chaste, pain-drunk reveries about their wives. Flashbacks—helpfully tagged as such by supersaturated soft focus—occasionally interrupt the succession of gray close-ups. Sometimes there are separate scenes in which Jimeno and McLoughlin's wives become hysterical (Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Jimeno's pregnant Mrs., is actually quite good). The only thing that really breaks the monotony, though, is when Jimeno has a vision of Jesus bearing bottled water. It's pretty funny. Unfortunately, it's not the only divine visitation in the film.
The two cops are eventually rescued by a rogue marine named Dave Karnes. Karnes isn't just any first responder—in fact, he's retired from the service. But he's been called by God to pull on his camo and descend on Ground Zero without credentials or safety equipment. (His revelation comes in a pew at Pentecost—religious viewers are expected to overlook the fact that Pentecost occurs in the spring.) This footman of the apocalypse, played with hokey gravitas by Michael Shannon, tends to say things like, "I don't know if you guys know yet, but this country's at war." (Did God tell you that, buddy?) Better yet: "Looks like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we're not yet ready to see." (Is that like when Oliver Stone fades to black five times in one movie?) But my single biggest complaint about World Trade Center is the way it uses the Karnes character to link 9/11 with the war in Iraq. After all the drama is over, Karnes swells with righteous anger. "Gonna need some good men out there. To avenge this," he announces gruffly, his pronouns damning in their lack of specificity. Then, immediately before the credits roll, Karnes gets his own title card: "DAVE KARNES RE-ENLISTED IN THE MARINES AND SERVED TWO TOURS OF DUTY IN IRAQ." The truth is sloppy, I'm sure, but this kind of causal carelessness is absolutely unforgivable, especially when so many Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein had some hand in email@example.com