(2006, Theatrical Docudrama, PG-13, 1 hr 59 min)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Andrea Berloff
based on the true stories of John & Donna McLoughlin and William & Allison Jimeno
Nicolas Cage (John)
Maria Bello (Donna)
Michael Pena (Will)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Allison)
Michael Shannon (Karnes)
THE PHYSICAL STORY
World Trade Center is a docudrama about the survival and rescue of two New York Port Authority Cops, one a veteran Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and the other a rookie, William Jimeno (Michael Pena), who are caught under the rubble of the World Trade Center towers' collapse on September 11, 2001. The movie, is also about the emotional battle fought by their wives Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the Marine that discovered them, Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon).
In short strokes the men go to work early on the morning of September 11, 2001 as police officers assigned to the Manhattan bus terminal, but soon are called to go downtown as part of a larger team to the Trade Center Towers to rescue survivors. After they arrive, the buildings collapse, entombing the men, most of which die. John and Will barely survive. After 18 and 24 hours respectfully, they are rescued, and are reunited with their wives and family, albeit after long medical recoveries. As the movie follows the men's journey toward death and then toward life, it also follows the women's journey toward dread and then hope.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL STORY
While the physical elements of any story surrounding 9/11 are likely to be about harrowing physical events of heroes and victims, World Trade Center is substantially a psychological adventure. For most of the movie the physically active Nicolas Cage of movies such as Gone in 60 Seconds, National Treasure, and Ghost Rider—is buried is rubble and dust, that we see only part of his face; Michael Pena is similarly challenged with his character. We are left with their psychological wits, albeit enhanced with further building collapses, fireballs, death, and trauma. The women, in traversing their emotional journey at least can move about their homes and neighborhoods, but their nemesis is the dread that the husbands, to whom they have a strong bond, might be dead. The men in their hole, and the women in their homes — both seemingly trapped without recourse — battle for hope, life, and a return to the happiness they had but had taken for granted.
Depending on how you want to "read" the film, there are two moral premises. In broad storytelling terms, you have hateful villains and loving heroes that lead to a moral premise like this:
It is the hate of the terrorists and leads to the thousands of death that day; but it is the love of New Yorkers that rally and bring lives and the city back to life.
Hate leads to death; but
Love leads to life.
But as one of the movie's tag lines says this:
That is a hint that this movie is about something more important still. I think this film is really about this MORAL PREMISE:
The World Saw Evil That Day. Two Men Saw Something Else.
HOW THE MORAL PREMISE IS REVEALEDTaking the love of our family and country for granted
leads to death and despair; but
Not taking the love of our family and country for granted
leads to life and hope.
The first half of the film shows us what can happen when we take certain things for granted.
On a national scope we could conclude that until 9/11 the country took its freedom and safety for granted. America was not prepared for such an attack. It assumed that distance from its belligerent enterprises, and current level of intelligence gathering, had ensured safety. Indeed the movie begins with the Burke and Dunn song Only in America, which heralds America's overconfidence that:
It is a song that bespeaks of our taking our freedom for granted.
Only in America, where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance, everybody gets to dance -- only in America
...all [we] want is everything
We also see how individuals in America have taken their good lives for granted. The movie begins with John getting up from bed at 3:29 AM. He says nothing to his wife, Donna laying in bed next to him. As he gets up he doesn't even look at her. Although awake, she is turned away from him and does not speak or move. John dutifully prepares for work, looks in on his four sleeping children, then drives to Manhattan for work. In this small but significant way we see how John and Donna take each other for granted and do not savor the moments they have together. Later this scene is reprised with a different outcome, as both learn the importance of seizing important moments in their lives.
A montage introduces us to New York City's morning, which is like many others...until terror strikes when the first airliner flies into one of the World Trade Towers. Suddenly, dread strikes everyone, even the police force.
With fear and trepidation John is asked to lead a team to the disaster site to rescue survivors. It's a mission for which they've never trained. Like many law enforcement organizations across the country, they have taken for granted their safety and freedom, never imagining that this situation would ever occur.
Before they get to the building they're supposed to enter, the first tower collapses, and they're trapped in the rubble near an elevator shaft. Their predicament is made worse with a second and third building collapse, and the death of their comrades.
It seems to us and to John and Will that they too are destined to die.
In fact the rest of the country and the world have taken the radical Islamic threat for granted, assuming they could not attack the West successful, even though the history of the West's conflict with Islamic terrorism is hundreds of years old. We forget Europe and America's 30 year conflict with the Barbary Pirates of Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli from 1785 to 1815, a 30 year period of piracy that saw U.S. citizens killed, taken hostage and the U.S. paying extortion to protect its shipping. A tactics that didn't work and wasn't solved until President Jefferson attempted and President Madison succeeded to engage America's fledging navy (right after the War of 1812) to sail to the Mediterranean and put an end to centuries old terrorism.
Despite this sort of history, America and New York City, as is much of the world are in a state of shock as we see with montages and interludes of cops in Wisconsin, an accounting firm in Connecticut, and people watching the events from around the world. The shock and feelings of helplessness and dread are the result of taking or safety for granted.
Through the first half of the story there is an acceptance of fate — a taking for granted that even when disaster strikes, there is little we can do to fix it, and we take our government for granted, rather than trying to fix things ourselves.
That is definitely the attitude of Donna McLoughlin, John's wife. Even after her husband is likely trapped in the rubble, she busies herself with household duties to take her minds off the tragedy, and more to the point, try not to get the children upset that somehow their father may be dead. She is play-acting at taking-for-granted, trying to act as if everything will be all right, or that others will handle the situation.
Allison, Will's wife, who is 5 months pregnant with their second child, is ill prepared emotionally. Will's new to the force and she, too, has taken for granted his safety. But now, she vomits.
That same attitude pervades the hole. Will and John talk about the waves of pain. Will asks John how long the internal bleeding takes to kill them. Both of them accept their fate, they take their situation for granted, and don't believe they can change anything.
THE MOMENT OF GRACE
53 min into the 1 hr. 59 min. story
It is at this point that Will makes a decision that alters their lives. Rather than taking their situation for granted and dying in the hole, he remembers the story of a little girl in Turkey who survived being trapped in an Earthquake's rubble for 4 days. He says to John: "If she can make it so can we." It is that moral decision by Will that changes the direction the movie is headed.
Looking beyond his immediate surroundings, Will sees a loose pipe that drips water near him. The drip of water is life. But when he can't pull the pipe close enough he lets the pipe slip, creating a loud noise that reverberates through the rubble pile. John hears it, and tells Will to keep it up. It will be a beacon to their rescuers. No longer are they taking their situation for granted.
At that moment John has a vision or dream of the time he and Donna discovered that they were pregnant with their first child. It is a special moment, and he does not fail to shower her with attention.
The next scene is back to real time. Donna and John's son (J.J.) challenges his mom to do something and not just stay around the house as if she didn't care. He challenges his mom not to take anything for granted, and to go to the city to look for John. The question is asked, "Why stay alive to come back to a routine?" The routine, here, substitutes for taking life for granted. After J.J. storms off, Donna laments to a friend, "I don't remember the last thing I said to John." She is sorry for taking John for granted, and not savoring her last moment with him.
The fourth time the story returns to the hole, guilt sets in for the men -- although the snapping of the pipe is a signal to the audience that these guys have hope. They begin to move past themselves and think of their families, verbally this time. Will blames himself for the death of their cohort nearby, and John takes the blame upon himself as the group leader. In the words of director, Oliver Stone, "They see how small and selfish they are." Selfishness here substitutes for taking others for granted.
Suddenly the third building implodes, and the rain of debris is so bad that they are sure they are going to die. John begins to yell out the Lords prayer at the top of his lungs. We hear the phrases "deliver us from evil" "forgive our trespasses" the clearest. John is not taking his salvation for granted. During that same moment Will is calling out for his family and little girl, Bianca.
When the threat passes, John has a vision of waking up like he did at the beginning of the movie, but this time, instead of taking Donna for granted, he turns over and pulls her into her arms. It is a vision or a memory (we don't know which) that gives John hope.
Earlier we met David Karnes, an accountant in Connecticut who upon seeing the tragedy on television, talks to his pastor and prayers about what he should do. Quickly he sets off for the city. And, now, we see David Karnes walking toward the field of rubble when others firefighters and police are being turned away. He will not take his country's freedom for granted.
Donna discovers John's woodworking, as if it was for the very first time. She lovingly touches the tools; and she envisions John working with J.J. showing him how to use a saw. She can't take his gifts or love for the family for granted. She has to stop complaining that in the middle of his kitchen-remodeling project, she has no cabinets in the kitchen.
In the hole Will has a vision of Jesus who holds out a bottle of water to him. Jesus says nothing, but we remember Jesus' words to the Samarian Women, "Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:14) Will tells John he's seen a vision of Jesus "Jesus is telling us something. He's telling us to come home."
The first thought of that line might be in reference to coming home to heaven, but just a few minutes before little Bianca asks her mother Alison, "is Daddy coming home?" and afterwards in a vision John has, Donna is tilling him to get unstuck and home, the kids need you." to which John replies, "No, I need you." Home, here, is the one on earth, and Will is recharged with hope.
After Will is pulled to safety, it will take another 8 hours to get John out. While John waits he has a vision of Donna there in the hole with him, she's encouraging him to get unstuck and finish remodeling the kitchen. Will remembers cuddling with Alison and trying to decide what to call the new baby.
His first is on the hospital gurney when he first sees Donna he says:
Both men had good marriages.
I don't think they would have survived if they had bad marriages.—Oliver Stone
Two years later at a picnic, John holds Donna close and says:
You kept me alive.
Then, at the picnic, Will turns around and calls to a small child:
If she wasn't here I wouldn't be here.
And a very happy little girl runs to Will's arms and he lifts her up high with glee.
Olivia, you comin'?
Finally, the film takes us to David Karnes who decides he's not returning to work, but instead signs up for two tours of duty to Iraq. He is not going to take our country's freedom for granted.
In all these ways the movie is really about the moral premise:
Taking the love of our family and country for granted
leads to death and despair; but
Not taking the love of our family and country for granted
leads to life and hope.