For a thinly-disguised lesson in how to be an American patriot, go see Oliver Stone's take on the events of 11 September 2001... and bring a flag.
'World Trade Center' tells the story of two US policemen who were among the many emergency workers who stepped up to help evacuate the Twin Towers when the first plane struck on the morning of 11 September 2001. What would soon become known as one of the largest terrorist attacks in the world was then a tragic accident to most involved in the initial rescue operation. Police officers, fire-fighters and paramedics streamed to the scene, oblivious to the scale of what would later unfold.
Sergeant John McLoughlin (Cage) and his junior colleague Will Jimeno (Pena) were two of those who bravely volunteered to assist in the rescue operation, despite the grim admission that there was no plan in place for an incident of this scale. Joined by other members of the Port Authority Police Department, the men apprehensively stock up on what little supplies of oxygen tanks, helmets and high-visibility jackets are available to them and head into the unknown.
Up until this point, the scenario presented is all too real. You get a sense of the urgency, the fear and the volunteers' chilling need to brave their gut feelings and tackle this massive disaster head on. But once the second aeroplane hits the World Trade Center and the first tower begins to crumble, so too does the film.
In the scenes that follow we watch John and Will awkwardly bond as they struggle to stay alive after being buried under the rubble following the collapse. Meanwhile their families, led by John's wife Donna (Bello) and Will's pregnant wife Allison (Gyllenhaal), frantically worry as they receive conflicting reports of their whereabouts and condition.
Then in a crazy sideplot a former marine Dave Karnes (Shannon) watches the footage on television and decides that he must answer his calling to help people. He's a marine... it's what he does (cue a multitude of patriotic claps on the back and statements of devotion to his country-people, that will have the audience ashamedly struggling to stifle laughs, in the knowledge that nothing that happened on that day should be considered in any way funny). This leads into neon hallucinations of Jesus, offering the trapped rescue workers a bottle of water to quench their unbearable thirsts.
How Stone presents the tragedy to us is where the main problem lies here. Taking a true story from that day had potential to be a real tear-jerker (especially seeing as these were the last two men to be pulled out alive from the rubble) but you never really connect with the families of the two men, as you are shunted back and forward between silly subplots, the inclusion of which is detrimental to the film as a whole. Elements of the movie suggest that Stone somehow felt that a more light-hearted treatment would be acceptable in places, but it just doesn't work and won't endear the movie to anyone of a sensitive nature. The film just doesn't do justice to all the brave and completely selfless acts of that day, nor to all those who lost their lives in the terrible tragedy.
The acting, however, is compelling for the most part. Cage is flawless as the worn-out sergeant, who considers his many regrets when he feels that his number might be up. His jumpy and praise-hungry young colleague is also played well by Michael Pena, who constantly seeks reassurance and openly admits his fears and dreams when he too believes his moments living and breathing are numbered.
'World Trade Center' will no doubt have its US audiences applauding and upstanding in the cinema aisles, (one US reviewer earnestly described it as one of the greatest "flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see") but this side of the water it is unlikely to be met with such enthusiasm. The shame is that this could have been done so much better, especially from a filmmaker of Stone's calibre. It had potential to be touching, emotive, even heart-breaking, but trampled on any moments of tenderness with over-the-top pledges of allegiance and proclamations of honour.
Over the closing sequence the narrator observes how something really good emerged from such a disaster. It wasn't this film.