- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

We know all the bullet points about September 11 — as much as we wish we could forget them.

Oliver Stone’s reverential “World Trade Center” doesn’t shed much new light on the national nightmare.

“WTC” is the least experimental, most conventional film Mr. Stone has ever overseen — as if his fear of pressing a raw national nerve denied him his iconoclastic tool kit.

No funky film stock, stunt casting or distorting angles. Just the day’s horrors heroically endured by some resilient New Yorkers. You’ll still swallow the occasional lump in the throat, but our personal memories of the day are as much the cause as Mr. Stone’s orchestration.

The film opens on the morning of September 11, 2001, as a sun-drenched Big Apple preps for another business day. Port Authority Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) methodically calls the roll before news breaks that a plane has struck one of the Twin Towers.

The sergeant assembles a volunteer force — cue the first throat lump — to enter the building and save the fleeing workers. The officers have barely finished gathering supplies for the mission when the building comes tumbling down upon them. McLoughlin, along with Port Authority officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) are trapped, their bodies all but crushed under the structure’s weight.

The action shifts to the fallen officers’ families, who watch the news accounts of the strike without knowing whether their loved ones ever reached the towers. Young, pregnant Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) fears the new baby will never meet her father. Screenwriter Andrea Berloff hints at tension between Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello, a bit too made up for this sort of role) and her husband, but it’s barely developed and ultimately unrewarding.

What follows is an impeccably crafted, quasi-linear telling of the ordeal of the two officers, intercut with too much melodrama involving the wives. (“United 93,” a superior film dealing with September 11, wisely stays away from such obvious sentiment.) Mr. Stone evokes the horror of what essentially is two men trapped in a mass grave, but setting the story in such tight confines is dramatically limiting, as well.

The men banter to keep up their spirits, while their wives turn their husbands’ tragedy into “Movie of the Week” material, complete with hugging strangers and behaving in a cloyingly irrational manner.

Would three persons hanging on the fate of their loved one all forget to bring their cell phones when they dash off to the pharmacy?

While free of political editorializing, “WTC” is rife with religion. Some characters turn to their faith for comfort. One has a vision of Jesus, but Mr. Stone overplays what should have been a haunting moment.

The film also embraces the military via a gung-ho Marine who, after hearing of the attacks, rushes to the barber for a military-ready trim. It’s a miracle Mr. Stone let his subplot play out without a trace of foreign-policy foreboding.

Mr. Stone, a native New Yorker, summons the city’s characters without condescension and lets credible accents punch up the narrative.

“World Trade Center” couldn’t be more earnest, but Mr. Stone’s interpretation of September 11 sure could use some of the director’s high-energy vision.

**1/2

WHAT: “World Trade Center”

RATING: PG:13 (Coarse language, mild sexuality, disturbing images and mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Andrea Berloff based on the true stories of John McLoughlin and William Jimeno.

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

WEB SITE: www.wtcmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars

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