Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is called "a true story of courage and survival." It speaks directly to the other big story of September 11, not the terrorist attacks but the miracles that happened when people pulled together and risked their own lives to help others. Accounts of self-sacrifice were repeated all over New York in the days and months after the Twin Towers were destroyed, but as the years have passed, the war on terrorism has become the most common association with that day. It is time to remember something more.
The secret to this drama's emotional dynamite is the literate and heart-affecting screenplay by Andrea Berloff which explores the tragedy from the point of view of two members of the Port Authority Police Department and their wives and friends who agonized over their fate for a 24-hour period. The spiritual practice of kindness is common to all religions; indeed, the Dalai Lama asserts it is the most important one. Although it is sometimes viewed as one of those effete virtues lacking in charisma or clout, kindness is very powerful encompassing meaningful acts of love, words of encouragement, generosity, and acts of selfless courage that reverberate beyond our knowledge. This movie focuses on that.
Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) is a 21-year veteran of the Port Authority Police Department who was on the scene when a bomb exploded in the World Trade Center garage in 1993. When word comes of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers, he and his men take over a city bus and head downtown. He admits to the commander riding with him that there is no plan to deal with an attack at the top of the buildings. By the time they reach the area, the streets are littered with debris and wounded people are staggering out of the buidlngs.
McLoughlin takes five volunteers and heads into Tower 1, going to the concourse level to get breathing gear. While they are there, the building starts to collapse; they run into one of the elevator shafts, one of the strongest parts of the building. McLoughlin is pinned beneath concrete and metal; only two others survive a short distance away from him: Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who is trapped under a concrete slab, and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez). The latter tries to free his buddy but is killed during another downfall of debris.
In every authentic tale of survival, we ask ourselves what would sustain us in the face of suffering, pain, and the imminent prospect of dying. McLoughlin as the leader of the men is brought face-to-face with his feelings of inadequacy as a cop and as a husband to his wife Donna (Maria Bello). He admonishes Will to stay awake, warning if he goes to sleep he might never wake up. At one point, fire balls race through the area where they are lying. Choking in the fumes, John shouts out the Lord's Prayer. But it is Will, the young rookie who always wanted to be a cop, who carries them through their painful 12-hour ordeal as they lie twenty feet beneath the rubble field. He remembers a line from the movie G.I. Jane about making pain a friend. He sings a ditty from the TV show Starsky & Hutch, talks about his wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and little girl, ponders what name he wants for the baby in his wife's womb, and sees a bright image of Jesus offering him a water bottle.
Meanwhile, in Goshen, New Jersey, Donna McLoughlin, surrounded by her four children and relatives, tries to deal with the tragedy. She spends a moment in her husband's workshop and touches his tools as a way of connecting with him. Donna feels guilty that she can't even remember what her parting words for John were that morning. The most poignant moment of solace comes at the hospital where she connects with a black woman (Viola Davis) who fears the worst about her son, an elevator operator in Tower 2. In Clifton, New Jersey, the pregnant Allison suffers a series of mood swings when there is no word about Will's fate.
One of the most memorable characters is ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) who, after watching the World Trade Center catastrophe on television, goes to church, and tells his minister that he feels compelled by God to help those in harm's way at Ground Zero. He and several others who race to the scene also seem to be motivated by a desire for revenge a detail we prefer had been left out of the movie, but truth be told, it was also a prevalent feeling in the immediate aftermath of the attcks.
The search and recovery effort by the police and fire departments has been called off for the day when Karnes arrives at Ground Zero, but he manages to get onto the rubble pile anyway. He and another Marine climb over the piles of twisted steel with only flashlights for gear. Hearing a noise from below, they locate McLoughlin and Jimeno and call in support from the command center. Now it is up to emergency officers Scott Strauss (Stephen Dorff) and Paddy McGee (Stoney Westmoreland) and paramedic Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley) to dig them out, an incredibly dangerous mission as the pile could shift at any moment, burying them all. It becomes clear that this rescue operation is filled with great meaning for all those involved.
According to Talmudic legend, explains Rabbi Rami Shapiro, there are always thirty-six menschen, called lamed-vavniks, who live both for themselves and for others. Without their acts of lovingkindness, life would implode under the weight of human selfishness, anger, ignorance, and greed. Shapiro interpets this teaching to mean that people move in and out of the lamed-vavnik role, and at any given moment that the world continues, we know that 36 hidden saints are performing acts of lovingkindness.
World Trade Center salutes people who performed remarkable acts of lovingkindness on September 11. They courageously stepped up to play what part they could to help others in the darkness. This story inspires us to join their ranks to be today's lamed-vavniks in our increasingly violent and dangerous world.
Special DVD features include: a commentary by Oliver Stone, 911 survivor Will Jimeno, and actual on-scene rescue workers; and deleted scenes.