Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Review: World Trade Center (2006)

World Trade Center
126 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

World Trade Center
is a relatively uninvolving story about two policemen who enter a burning building and are trapped in rubble when said building collapses. On it's face, the film isn't terribly moving, the performances are barely adequate, and several key characters are rendered in such broad strokes as to be unsettling or unsympathetic. It's simply a badly made film, but will that matter to audiences distracted by a 'nationalistic obligation' to embrace it?

World Trade Center concerns two policemen who were trapped in one of the World Trade buildings in NYC when those buildings were hit by passenger jets and collapsed on 9-11-01. Officers John McLouglin (Nicolas Cage, doing what he can with very little character depth) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena, shining in the proverbial lead role) make their way to the police station on that fateful Tuesday morning. After receiving word that a plane has hit the World Trade Center, they make their way to the building to assist with rescue efforts. They enter the tower right as it falls and traps them in the rubble.

The first 25 minutes are simply spellbinding and riveting, as we see pieces of the attack from the eyes of unknowing victims (this is the only part that feels like an Oliver Stone film). The sense of futility is stunning. It's obvious that the city was completely unprepared in equipment and technology for this event (the stinging acknowledgment of this is the only thing that comes close to making any political statements, in an otherwise apolitical film). Unfortunately, once John and Will fall into the ground, the film becomes awash in melodramatic clichés.

The film then alternates between scenes of John and Will trying to keep each other awake, scenes of their would-be rescuers, and scenes of their families suffering. The scenes of our two attempted heroes are worthwhile and entertaining. There is a tangible sense of dread, as they both know that random fragments of the building or a random spark could kill them at any moment. Unfortunately, the family grieving scenes frankly reek of Lifetime clichés. Actually, the 90s Lifetime movie about a woman trapped in rubble after the Oklahoma City bombing (Oklahoma City: A Survivor's Story) is actually better than this film.

The wives are underdeveloped and their children alternate between cloy and vile. John's son spends his scenes yelling at his mother for not 'doing something'; behavior that is so naive and cruel that his heartlessness hurts that whole portion of the movie. Meanwhile, Will's pregnant wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has a slow nervous breakdown, but her scenes of strife are nothing we haven't seen before in other, better movies. Weirdly enough, Will's wife's (Caucasian) family is presented as energetic, spirited, and can-do Americans, while Will's (non-Caucasian) family is represented mainly by his mother kneeling on the floor and helplessly weeping. Intentional or not, the symbolism is disturbing.

Speaking of disturbing, the third thread concerns Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a former marine who spearheaded the rescue effort. Presented as a zealot who drove thousands of miles to help, he is played (unintentionally?) as a genuinely scary figure, whose good deeds don't mask the fact that he's quite frightening in his zealotry (he has cold, dead eyes, believes that he is on a holy quest, and speaks like he'll kill you if you disagree with him). Apparently, several humanizing details were cut out of the film; so all were left with is a Christian fanatic (as opposed to a merely devout Christian) who finds his way onto Ground Zero in the dead of night.

Oddly, the film strives so hard to be uplifting and inspiring that it almost forgets to present that day as a monumental tragedy as well (a late, brief scene involving Viola Davis as a grieving mother feels tacked on). Alas, the recent flawed remake of Poseidon presented a more potent look at the tragedy of mass death (the mass drowning of the ballroom passengers, with Andre Braugher hugging Stacy Ferguson as they await doom, is heartbreaking).

So, in the end, we have a mediocre disaster film with undeveloped or unsympathetic characters. We have cliched dialogue and situations along with a boring second act. The film fails the key rule of based on truth film making. If this story were complete fiction, would it still be worth seeing or half as effective? The filmmakers hope that moviegoers will be swept up in the 'oh, but it's about 9/11' glow and ignore the fact that this is really a mediocre motion picture. This is not the great 9/11 epic of our time, and you don't have a patriotic duty to embrace it.

Grade: C-

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