The opening shots of Oliver Stone's new film are deliberately peaceful: A hot shower, an alarm clock gently switched off before it can pierce the silence, a leisurely pre-dawn drive to work. Little moments, charged with a strange electricity because we know they belong to a bygone era. World Trade Center is centered directly on that trembling fault line between the final, boring hours of the pre-9/11 world and a radically different future. Good fodder for a director who thinks in terms of decades, but apart from its focus on a seismic macro-topic, the work is barely recognizable as part of the Stone filmography. For better or worse -- sometimes worse -- this is a picture that abandons the outside world and focuses entirely on two victims, alone in the dark. There's never a mention of the snakes on the planes, only a near-postscript from a solitary Marine, who surveys the smoking wreckage and proclaims that "we're gonna need some good people to avenge this."

That Marine is Stone's only indulgence. Played by Michael Shannon, he's an anti-McVeigh who pops out of a cornfield somewhere with a wide-eyed fix on his mission -- to go and provide relief at the destroyed Trade Center. Arriving at the ruins, he slips past an improvised triage center on Liberty Street and is quickly on top of the rubble, searching for survivors with a flashlight. Below him, trapped in a pit of nightmares, are Sgt. John McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno, two cops who rushed into the concourse between one tower on fire and the other ominously concealed in smoke. McLoughlin, played by a gaunt Nicolas Cage, is seen leading his men into the inferno while brushing aside rumors about a "second plane" that may have hit the towers. Only at the moment of no return, with his ears imploding from the sounds of a falling world plunging toward him, does he realize what's afoot, and hurl himself into an elevator shaft just as a black freight train of debris blows by.

Aside from that stunning moment, Stone keeps his trademark visual frenzy pocketed. The director who once rewound the tape, over and over, of Kennedy's head disintegrating into bone and brain doesn't push it this time. There's no head-on look at the improvised missiles with human payload slamming into the towers, only large shadows that drape the sides of buildings as they cruise by. At one point they darken a billboard of Zoolander, reminding us that 9/11 wasn't the only disaster that year. Stone's cameraman, Seamus McGarvey, is less interested in catastrophe than in faces, which are his specialty. He filled the frame with Emma Thompson's head for most of Wit and somehow made Nicole Kidman's proboscis look reasonable in The Hours. With this film, he's in there, tight and intrusive, with Jimeno (Michael Pena), trapped under a large, tombstone-shaped slab and McLoughlin, whose injuries are more worrisome because we can't see them. From the torso down, he's buried in hot debris. McGarvey's camera is like a doctor, encouraging them to stay conscious when they'd prefer not to be.

Into this vision of hell, Stone at one point introduces a gun, of all things. One of the officers, pinned and out of his senses, unholsters his sidearm in an attempt at suicide. Because of the heat or other damage, the gun begins to fire itself automatically, sending rounds careering around the debris. Large, fiery projectiles originating from who knows where also streak by. Eventually, Jimeno begins to drift off into a world of languid hallucinations, where Stone is more equipped to deal with him. He gives Jimeno a fiery apparition of a long-haired and blinged-out Jesus to talk to. This happens closer to the end of the ordeal, around the same time McLoughlin is being pulled from the rubble and hoisted up for a body-surf, complete with hand-slapping, through a throng of officers. And then we get the trifecta: Stone mainstay Frank Whaley, as a soot-covered paramedic, surveying the whole scene with his crooked smile. These images, in close proximity to one another, make the film seem, oddly, like a sequel to The Doors.

Stone cuts away from Ground Zero only for unnecessary moments with the cops' wives and children. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Allison, Jimeno's very pregnant wife, stationed in the suburbs of North Jersey. McLoughlin, about two decades further down the road of his career, has a wife played by Maria Bello, who becomes too traumatized to travel to the site, so she watches the events on television. These scenes are the least compelling for the same reason you rarely see movies set in hospital waiting rooms -- the drama is all internal. Real drama rarely has use for people sitting quietly and crying. At one point, Allison's frustration drives her from a car in the middle of traffic, but even this feels showy and staged for our benefit. There's also a minor element of distraction owing to the fact that it's Gyllenhaal playing the anxious wife in the first place. It creates a weird feeling under the skin to think that Stone and Gyllenhaal are working on a project that isn't exactly forwarding the points of view they've chosen to put into the public arena.

Not that a charge of false advertising holds water. Stone has every right to spit out the politics of 9/11 and focus on two men. That said, if there's one moment in the film when his artistic integrity could be questioned, it's a brief montage of world citizenry glued to television sets and displaying looks of concern. Stone knows full well -- he pointed it out during the famous Alice Tully Hall panel in October 2001 -- that a large swath of humanity, from Greece to Gaza, erupted into a spontaneous dance party upon hearing the news of the hit on America. Why does he give the opposite line here? The screenplay for World Trade Center was obviously a maudlin affair, saved by Stone's natural directing talents, so there's a question as to why he wanted to save it. At that same Alice Tully Hall panel, when the ruins of 9/11 were still drawing tourists, Stone demanded that "a bullet of a film" be made about terrorism. That's the film I wanted from him.

For another take on World Trade Center, check out Karina Longworth's Netscape at the Movies video review of the film.