Give Oliver Stone credit: He's made sure that anybody expecting World Trade Center to be another of his inflammatory, hyperkinetic smart bombs will be disabused of that notion within the first five minutes. It's not just the atypically stately rhythm of the film's inevitable just-an-average-sleepy-Tuesday-morning montage (also present in this spring's United 93), or the tinkly, saccharine elevator music that accompanies ordinary New Yorkers and heroes-to-be alike as they make their oblivious way to what will soon become Ground Zero. Banal and uninspired filmmaking, to be sure, but it's still no reliable indication that Stone, who gave us the grunt's view of Vietnam and blamed the entire military-industrial complex for Kennedy's assassination, doesn't have something scabrous in store once the planes arrive. Eager to reassure, the director goes one step further: After five or six minutes of placid scene-setting, during which no sentient human could fail to register that we're witnessing the dawn of No Ordinary Day, he cuts to a long shot of the New York City skyline and superimposes the most superfluous caption in motion-picture history: "September 11, 2001." No, really?
As soon as I heard that Hollywood had two 9/11 projects in the works, I began steeling myself for nauseating sanctimony and dramatic listlessness. United 93, I confess, surprised me—the scenes set on the doomed flight itself were as pointless and rah-rah as I'd feared, but director Paul Greengrass, with his bullheaded commitment to doc-style naturalism, created a magnificently dizzying portrait of the confusion and helplessness that overwhelmed professionals trying to make sense of events from command posts dozens or hundreds of miles away. World Trade Center, on the other hand, which recounts the tale of two Port Authority cops who were rescued from the rubble, lives down to expectations. Stone or no Stone, it's little more than a maudlin TV movie writ large, clumsily prodding at your emotional buttons and making you feel violated whenever it connects. Only the magnitude of the tragedy gives the film dramatic weight; had it simply been about two miners trapped in a shaft for 13 and 21 hours, respectively—which in almost every respect would be the exact same movie—its essential puniness would be unmistakable.
Here's the thing: Drama, by definition, involves people making choices. No agency, no drama. In serious, complex movies intended for adults, those choices are usually foolish or misguided; big, dumb Hollywood flicks, by contrast, prefer their choices righteous and resolute. Either way, though, the characters onscreen can't be entirely constrained. World Trade Center depicts the actions of a number of brave men, but their courage, however admirable, gets buried alongside them the moment the towers fall, which is roughly 20 minutes into the picture. The rest of the film cuts back and forth between John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), neither of whom can do anything but lie there and bleed internally, and their wives Donna (Maria Bello, sporting blue contact lenses that make her look vaguely Stepfordish) and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), neither of whom can do anything but weep, rail, and wait for the phone to ring. For all the apparent tension of the situation, this is fundamentally an exercise in waiting, leavened slightly by moments of goofy gallows humor (Jimeno and McLoughlin humming the theme to Starsky and Hutch) and a few corny flashbacks. If you want to see people survive, or hope against hope that others will survive, this is the movie for you.
World Trade Center seems even more of a missed opportunity when it introduces its only potentially compelling character: Dave Karnes, a former Marine who travels to Ground Zero (in uniform), sneaks past the barricades, and embarks upon an unauthorized search for survivors in the middle of the night, eventually locating McLoughlin and Jimeno. Karnes, who insists on being called Staff Sergeant Karnes—asked for a shorter name by a friendly emergency worker, he reluctantly offers just "Staff Sergeant"—is played by Michael Shannon, an accomplished stage actor who's destined to make a big impression with his unhinged performance in William Friedkin's Bug, which has only screened at a few festivals to date. Possessed of an unnerving stare and an almost maniacal fervor, Shannon threatens, in his few moments onscreen, to transform Stone's polite, uplifting memorial into something pulsing and alive, if only because you're never quite sure what his intentions are or what he might do next. (Should Martians ever see this movie, they'll immediately assume that Karnes blew up the towers himself—he's that creepy.) A good movie—the kind Stone used to make—would have been about him, leaving the fallen heroes and their worried families in brief, expository reaction shots, where they belong.