Oliver Stone usually makes films that are critical of American politics and institutions: Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) about Vietnam; Wall Street (1989) on the Reaganomic financial boom; JFK (1991) about the secret services and Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories; The Doors (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Any Given Sunday (1999) about drugs and violence. His ethos has tended to be anti-establishment, often controversial. World Trade Center, despite the iconic title, badly misfires; although it wasn't aiming at his usual targets.
Stone is, above all else, a storyteller. In WTC he chooses a narrow focus, as he had done with Born on the Fourth of July, showing the events of 11 September 2001 from the point of view of two Port Authority Police Department officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), and their families. Their unit was sent to evacuate Tower 1, but before they could leave ground level, it collapsed on top of them in the elevator shaft. The fact that the filmmakers collaborated with these men and their families kinda gives away the ending; but also limits the sort of film Stone could have made. It was arguably already in dubious taste to make a film within five years of the events; to make it critical would have been US box-office suicide. So instead he makes a Bruckheimer.
Only rarely and briefly did it grab me viscerally. The tower collapsing from the inside was compelling cinema (although I'm not sure about the slow-motion screaming and running - clichéd and battered by parody). True, it might have had a bigger impact in the cinema and without a cynical attitude. The McLoughlin family reacting with joy to news that John was still alive was also moving. However, there was too much patriotic All-American Christian hero bullshit going on, particularly from the retired Marine, who, with the blessing of his pastor, got himself a buzzcut, found his old uniform, and rushed himself down to Ground Zero to help with the recovery effort. I'm not knocking his bravery or selflessness. I am wondering why he then spent two years at war in Iraq, as the end credits tell us.
From a film with this kind of shiny production value, I wanted epic scope - a proper disaster movie with a wide perspective, improving upon Independence Day (1996) and Armageddon (1998). It might have worked better as a Kevin Macdonald-style docu-drama à la Touching the Void (2003) with talking heads and dramatic reconstructions. Too much of the movie was from the outside; I wanted more to experience what the survivors went through, not what their kitchen-sink wives and Yankee-capped kids were doing. After two hours, I wasn't exhausted enough, and wasn't given enough of the sense of ordeal these people went through.
And as for the lack of political comment about what happened after...I hope that's coming soon.
Nugget: I stayed away from this film when it was first released and would not have missed anything had I never seen it. Take the hint. Watch United 93 instead.