"I had expected to find the annihilating economy of [9/11] ... being explored, made legible. On the contrary, I found what had happened was being processed, obscured, systematically leached of history and so of meaning ... As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the event itself. We now had 'the loved ones,' we had 'the families,' we had 'the heroes.'"

-- Joan Didion, Fixed Ideas: American After 9/11

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is well-made and well-intentioned. It is the story of two Port Authority Policemen who went, as part of a band of brothers, down to the World Trade Center the morning of 9/11 to help rescue survivors. Wounded and trapped when the buildings collapsed, officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) tried to keep each other conscious and alert in the hope that someone, anyone, might be able to find them.

Stone's film -- and Andrea Berloff's script -- work with Jimeno and McLoughlin's real-life stories, and an opening title explains how the film is taken from the stories and recollections of surviving participants. In other words, this is not the crazy, careening, wild-eyed Stone of JFK attempting to re-write history. Stone's approach here has the careful, measured step of an altar boy bringing the Body of Christ up to the priest, terrified he might trip on his vestments. And films about the events of 9/11 certainly don't need the flash and dazzle of invented conspiracy; the question is if they one day might be offered the cool, considered illumination of reality.

For a while, it looks like that's what Stone is giving us: Beginning with blue-lit images of a sleepy, pre-dawn city, about to waken from slumber on a bright fall day. We see Port Authority cops on the job -- cajoling homeless men to move along, keeping an eye out for runaways, patrolling the bridges and bus stations of Manhattan, going about their business. But then -- as planes passing overhead cast ominous shadows and muted explosions thump in the Dolby distance -- the officers head down to the World Trade Center in a chaotic rush. Fear and panic, those dogs of war, have been unleashed, and as McLoughlin and his men gather gear to go up the building and rescue civilians, rumors fly in the dusty air as thick and numerous as the papers falling from the shattered buildings above.

Cage's McLoughlin isn't pausing to consider that: "Don't think. Move." As the group readies to go into action, the buildings fall in a cacophony of exploding concrete and twisted rebar. Stone has always been a master of manipulating film -- and that verb isn't meant as a judgment or an insult, for Stone has consistantly offered us an awesome interplay of editing, sound and cinematography, of lighting and effects used to move the feel of his story inexorably forward. Those skills are all in play here, whether in the bizarre cataclysm of randomly exploding objects in McLoughlin and Jimeno's twisted instant catacomb, or the washed-out hallucinatory image of a glowing, luminous Jesus holding out a plastic bottle of water as the two grow more and more dehydrated.

But the narrative of World Trade Center is as pedestrian as a '40s melodrama: Add in Lassie and you'd have the sort of classic 'Timmy's in the well' story that's been mocked for as long as it's existed. The one off-note in this hymn of heroism -- and even then I may be projecting -- comes when Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), an ex-Marine and accountant, walks out of work, pulls his battle dress out of storage, gets his hair buzz-cut and goes to the WTC site to do what he can -- an act of heroic charity that almost obscures the fact that he's misrepresenting himself every step of the way. Something about Shannon's performance -- the unblinking Karnes says bumper-sticker ready phrases like "They're gonna need some good men out there to avenge this." -- reminded me of what e.e. cummings wrote about another American hero, Buffalo Bill: "How do you like your blueeyed boy/Mister Death?"

As for the other actors, Cage is reliable as ever as McLoughlin, a stalwart, mustached blue-collar hero devoted to his wife Donna (Maria Bello) and kids; Peña plays Jimeno as a slightly more open sort of man, fretting over his pregnant wife Allison (a weeping, blunt Maggie Gyllenhaal). But the characters feel stock -- like Frank Whaley's ex-paramedic who pauses in the middle of a rescue operation to explain that years of rehab have made it clear all he wants to do is help people. It's hard not to be moved as nice guys are pulled from the wreckage by a bucket brigade of bleeding, dust-covered firemen and cops and EMTs, through a wide-shot recreation of Ground Zero's smoldering wreckage -- but even at that moment, you're marveling at the expense and scope of the set design, and looking to see where the sets stop and the computer-generated carnage begins.

World Trade Center is, as I said, well-made and well-intentioned. Is that enough? Like United 93, it captures the keening, raw chaos of that day without looking either back to the time before, or ahead to what came after. We do get a postscript about the real-life characters -- how McLoughlin and Jimeno endured massive surgeries so they might survive, and Karnes re-enlisted with the Marines to serve two tours in Iraq. Karnes' tours don't, of course, strictly come under the umbrella of "avenge this," but if the current administration and a substantive percentage of the American population can overlook that minor point, so can we, right? And movies like World Trade Center are a big part of that overlooking -- a silver-lined story of salvation that comes wrapped in a cloud of induced amnesia to block rational thought. Early on in World Trade Center, McLoughlin tells his men "Don't think. Move."; Stone's film suggests pretty much the same thing -- don't think, be moved -- and that makes it an emotionally engaging work. The question is whether our emotions are all that the stories of 9/11 should engage.

CATEGORIES Reviews, Cinematical