No doubt, Stone is capable of greatness, and the good news is World Trade Center is his best film since Natural Born Killers. The bad news would be that it still isn't a very good movie.
Credit Stone for not allowing any of his conspiracy theories to pollute what should be an uplifting film about two brave men who survived underneath the rubble of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. His film is utterly devoid of the wild postulations that made JFK so intriguing and Nixon so ridiculous.
The main problem here seems to be that Stone wouldn't know subtlety if it, quite uncharacteristically, came up behind him, turned his ass around and screamed in his out-of-touch face. He handles the prelude to disaster fine, but once the two main characters wind up stuck in the rubble, the film becomes a heavy-handed metropolitan soap opera.
Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña do their best as Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two men who experienced an unimaginable hell on that day. Both officers apparently consulted with Stone and the actors to make sure the depiction of their experience was as authentic as possible.
Called to the scene after the first plane hit the towers, and riding on a bus when the second plane hit, the two men were plotting a rescue operation with fellow officers in the World Trade Center's shopping-mall concourse when the first tower collapsed. The collapse sequence is horrifying, as it should be, and the predicament the men find themselves in is unspeakable. Trapped under tons of debris, and not even aware that the buildings had actually collapsed, the two men find themselves fighting to stay awake, knowing that sleep could mean death.
While the story and their rescue (the two were Nos. 18 and 19 out of a total 20 pulled from the rubble) is extraordinary, it honestly makes for a boring movie. Stone spends much time with the actors' trapped heads filling up the screen and talking--not the most compelling of screen images.
The parallel stories away from the trapped men, that of their wives trying to cope with their husbands' unknown fate, is unwatchable for the wrong reasons. What these women had to deal with was unconscionably terrible, yet Stone reduces their sufferings to clichés. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal try valiantly to make this portion of the film meaningful, but to no avail. Even worse is the strange depiction of the men's eventual rescuer, a former Marine named Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), as some sort of nut.
Stone's film contains a visually powerful re-creation of Ground Zero, a few strong performances and an honorable core. What it doesn't have is a consistent quality of drama, and that's a flagrant foul when considering the subject matter. Earlier this year, director Paul Greengrass made the unforgettable Sept. 11 film United 93, which stands as the year's best film as of now. World Trade Center is an average movie at best, a film that falls somewhere in the middle of Stone's erratic cinematic offerings.
With all due respect to the heroic men and women depicted in this story, I don't think Oliver Stone was the right choice for this film. This guy has been rolling gutter balls for quite some time, and he lost his ability to realistically depict human emotions many years ago. Putting such an important piece of history in his unreliable hands was a mistake, and the underwhelming results are proof of that.