Written by Andrea Berloff, World Trade Center is the story of two New York City policemen and their families. The story is true, and its factual faithfulness has been praised by those upon whose lives it is based. On Sept. 11, 2001, Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and his unit are posted as usual at the Port Authority. Their job is to protect citizens against pickpockets and aggressive panhandlers and help tourists with directions. When the first plane slams into the first tower, John and his men are dispatched to the area where information is scarce and responsibilities unclear. The sergeant decides that he needs to organize a rescue squad and secures a half-dozen volunteers from among his men. They outfit themselves with oxygen tanks for a planned ascent, but are still in the mezzanine when the second tower comes crashing down on top of them. John is trapped beneath the incredible rubble not far from two of his men who also survived the initial collapse. Officer Dom Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) is killed a short time later when the first tower falls. The story that follows develops as John and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pea) encourage one another to endure the horror of being buried alive. Away from Ground Zero the film also chronicles the helpless anguish of wives Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the two officers' families.
Director Stone keeps so tightly focused on his immediate human stories that he fails to provide us a desired broader context. We aren't quite sure about how much time passes, what's going on outside, or what kind of challenges rescuers face atop the pile. Even when incredibly brave men like Scott Strauss (Stephen Dorff) and Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley) manage to slither down to the victims among the shifting matchsticks of steel beams and boulders of concrete, the film doesn't capture their peril in the way it probably should.
These are ephemeral complaints, however. For what Stone does accomplish is far more important than any minor failing. He starts the picture in the early morning at the McLoughlin and Jimeno homes. Sept. 11, 2001, is just another day for average people going about the ordinary activities of their work and family lives. In this pointed way, McLoughlin and Jimeno represent all the 2,749 who died in the World Trade Center that day: human beings doing their jobs. At the same time, Stone lets his images register how the events of 9/11 happened to all of America. As Will drives to work, he listens to a country ballad singing of "the promised land." The Statue of Liberty is spotted through a windshield. And the stark architectural simplicity of the soaring towers themselves testifies to a nation's utilitarian self-confidence and economic might.
In the main, though, World Trade Center is about America as a whole only in that it is about its everyday people, about two men doing their jobs and the family circles from which they hail. Most Americans work hard. We benefit from that labor in our prosperity. But we pay for our prosperity in the diminished time we are able to give to our loved ones. John and Will understand this sacrifice with great clarity as they lie crushed under concrete and steel, choking on dust and soot. Their thoughts turn little to career ambitions, extensively to wives and children. Will manages to scroll a love note to his wife, a feat he knows may be his last communication with the world. And John says something that fired like an arrow of wisdom through this old cynic's heart. Years ago, I was on a flight from Chicago to New Orleans when my plane suddenly went into a 27,000-foot nose dive from 35,000 feet. As the plane screamed toward a rising earth, and I thought I was going to die, I thought these words: "I hope Joyce knows how much I loved her." John, I think, puts its better when he says, "I hope that I have loved my wife enough." That's the lesson of 9/11. That's what World Trade Center urges we not forget.