MOVIE REVIEW- All in the moments: 2001: a Stone odyssey

One might expect conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone, in making a film about 9/11, to rub salt in the nation's wounds with a scenario about the Bush administration staging the day's events as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Well, you'd be wrong, by jingo (as in "buy jingoism," which may explain how World Trade Center got financed). This movie's as all-American, cavalry-to-the-rescue, "You damn dirty terrorists!" as they come.

In a fantasy sequence, Port Authority Police Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage)–trapped in the rubble and near death– has an imaginary conversation with his wife, Donna (Maria Bello), in which he expresses doubts about their relationship and whether he loved her enough. She absolves him of any guilt, saying, "I think we had it. It was in the moments."

If World Trade Center has it, it's in the moments. There are some great ones that show Stone at the top of his form, but there are at least as many bad moments that wouldn't be worthy of a novice, and an overwhelming number of mediocre moments, including most of the film's long central portion.

The clichéd opening sequence shows John getting up (at 3:29am), showering and looking in on his four kids before he leaves Goshen, NY, for work. Driving into the city as the sun begins to rise, he hears on the radio that it's Primary Day and the polls are officially open. What time do the polls open in New York?

More routine scenes as John gives out the day's assignments to his men drive home what an ordinary day September 11, 2001, started out to be. John ends with his standard signoff, "Protect yourself. Watch each other's backs."

You could say Paul Greengrass's United 93 was an establishing shot of 9/11, with its semi-documentary style and virtually anonymous characters. World Trade Center moves in for closeups, making it more like a real movie. Some of its most powerful images are television footage of the actual events and excellent recreations of same.

The confusion and panic following the planes hitting the towers, which ran through most of United 93, is sketched in quickly here. Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff are eager to get to the basic situation. John, who's something of an expert on the World Trade Center ("If anyone knows what to do it's him"), takes a team downtown to help with evacuation after the first plane hits.

There's a nice moment with lucky survivors filing out of the building while the police file in, but such bits of realism are too often sacrificed for heightened realism which crosses over into melodrama. As the building collapses, John yells for his men to run to an elevator shaft. Only two of them reach it with him, and one of those, Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez), is soon dead. That leaves John and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña)– both of them pinned down and in pain, but alive.

For more than an hour the movie cuts back and forth between their situation, as they talk to keep each other awake– John believes with sleep comes death– and that of their families, including flashbacks to happier times. Will's wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), lives in New Jersey with their young daughter and another on the way. Once the news breaks, various extended family members gather around the women to help them cope with the uncertainty.

Despite monotony (the men) and melodrama (the women), some suspense is built up, especially when rescue efforts begin in earnest. There would be more suspense if advance publicity hadn't trumpeted the fact that World Trade Center is based on the true story of two survivors. The thinking had to be that people wouldn't pay to see a downer in which the main characters die, so it's better to reveal the ending than take a chance on scaring ticket buyers off.

Michael Shannon plays a bizarre character, ex-Marine (but he kept his uniform) Dave karnes, a religious man with a hero complex who goes to New York to help. The kind of square-jawed caricature Charles Napier used to play in Russ Meyer films, karnes says things like, "God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we're not yet ready to see." When he and another man locate the trapped duo, Karnes assures Will, "We're not leavin‚ you, buddy. We're Marines. You are our mission." Is this guy comic relief or what?

While we've seen John and Will in closeup and heard them talking to each other, their relative positions have never been established. We know Will can see the sky through an opening about 20 feet above him, but during the rescue we learn John is about 20 feet further down.

It could be argued that John and Will are not heroes because, although they had put themselves in harm's way with the intention of helping people, they didn't actually have a chance to do anything before they got trapped. But America needs its heroes, and on a day with very few happy endings, we have to take what we can get. If this works, watch for 9/11– the Musical.

World Trade Center is often excruciating to watch, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. It's all in the moments.