Nicolas Cage in World Trade CenterWORLD TRADE CENTER

Following Paul Greengrass' United 93, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is the second 9/11-themed movie to arrive in the past four months - including A&E's Flight 93 and the Discovery Channel's The Flight That Fought Back, the fourth in the last year - and make no mistake: There will be more. There are so many tales to be told and so many elements of this national tragedy to focus on that, as cinematic subject matter, 9/11 is practically inexhaustible.

And while many still believe that it's "too soon" for movies based on that horrific Tuesday in 2001, I am at least heartened by these films' narrow focus; no filmmakers have yet attempted to grapple with the subject in grand, what-it-all-means terms. Instead, they've kept the films' storylines very specific - dealing solely with the United 93 flight, for instance, or in the case of World Trade Center, with the rescue of two first responders - and have merely implied its larger themes. September 11 meant something very different, very personal, for everyone, and 9/11 movies, thus far, have been respectful toward both our individual responses and, as a nation, our collective feelings on the subject. This is just one story, these films tell us. There are others.

In 10 or 20 years, after numerous other filmmakers and screenwriters deliver their own takes on 9/11, the fact that World Trade Center isn't a good movie - that it is, in actuality, a frustratingly bad one - won't much matter. But right now, at least, it does matter. It matters because, five years later, our memories of that day haven't deteriorated, and still fray our nerves - it may not be too soon for movies about 9/11, but it certainly seems too soon for the blatant sentimentality of World Trade Center.

We're supposed to let the film's crummy script and narrative contrivances off on a pass merely because it's a film about 9/11, but just because a film is sincere doesn't mean it isn't phony. September 11, as we all know, wasn't a movie, yet World Trade Center, unintentionally, keeps reminding you that it's only a movie; a terrible line of dialogue or a maudlin music cue or a pace-killing subplot will continually knock you out of the movie's universe. Stone's film is too earnest to be insulting, but hindered by a graceless script, it's too inept to be much else.

The hell of it is that we desperately want the movie to be good, and for long stretches, it is good; the first half-hour, especially, is magnificent. World Trade Center, with its script by Andrea Berloff, begins in the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, and as we watch police sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) prepare for the day, Stone stages their daily rituals and the camaraderie among their fellow officers with disarmingly warm matter-of-factness and relaxed humor. (The friend I saw the film with - a New Yorker - said that World Trade Center offered the most believable view of daily life in the city that he'd ever seen.)

Of course, this preamble merely serves as counterpoint to the horrors that will soon follow, and when the attacks on the World Trade Center do come, Stone delivers them with a terrifying suggestiveness. We aren't shown the planes hitting the towers, but we witness (and feel) their effect, and the details - the tremor felt in offices blocks away from Ground Zero, the sheets of paper raining on the streets like hellish snowflakes, a solitary man falling to his death - have a nauseating immediacy.

Throughout the film, in fact, Stone shakes you with images of understated power. After the initial attacks, McLoughlin and Jimeno find themselves trapped beneath the rubble, cut off from civilization except for one shining ray of light 20 feet above them - with that subtle, lovely visual touchstone, Stone suggests both the hope of their escape and the terrible, unpredictable delicacy of that hope.

And his insightful eye extends to several scenes outside the city; there's a wordless, heartbreaking sequence in which Will's pregnant wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) walks down her neighborhood street at night, and every house on both sides of the block is illuminated with the glow of TV screens, all tuned in not only to the same news story but, based on the colors of the flickering lights, the same channel. Stone is a fiercely visual director, and what poetry there is in World Trade Center is all steeped in its visuals.

Yet the director's moving work is continually undermined by the prosaic clunkiness of the script; Berloff's excruciating dialogue has the unintended effect of making this true story feel utterly false. Sometimes the lines themselves border on the incoherent - there's a sequence in which a grieving mother, whose son died in the south tower, says, "I saw that tower fall, like a pancake, and I just started yelling at him." (Uh ... like a pancake?)

But more often that not, the dialogue sounds phony because we've simply heard it too many times before - the family scenes, the rescue scenes, the "inspiring" speeches are all purely, predictably functional. There are some fine performances in World Trade Center - particularly by Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello, as Cage's wife - but no alchemy; at no time do the performers disappear and their characters emerge, because the easy laugh lines and dreary rhetoric make such a feat nearly impossible.

There are further problems. While the flashback structure is occasionally ingenious, the flashbacks themselves are the models of happy-family banality, and some scenes are edited so strangely that you do a double-take - was it just me, or did one of the trapped policemen actually commit suicide by shooting his gun in the air? And the movie takes a rather disastrous turn in the introduction of Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who travels from Connecticut to aid the rescue mission and becomes a laughable blight on the film. In the film's conception, Karnes, whom Shannon plays with grim obviousness, is a heroic cartoon - he's going to do something if no one else will, damn it - and the frequent cuts to his pithy he-man mutterings are like a bad joke; it's as if Stone dropped Rambo into the middle of Manhattan.

World Trade Center appears to be all heart and - Stone's visuals excepted - no head, and for many, this will be just what they want from a 9/11 movie. (It's the perfect film for audiences who refused to see United 93 on the grounds that it would be too disturbing.)

But I was never moved by World Trade Center for the simple reason that I never believed in World Trade Center; not every 9/11 film will possess the ravaging power of United 93, but they should at least be honest. There's nothing inherently wrong with filmmakers taking a hopeful, "inspiring" view of 9/11 - focusing on the heroes and survivors rather than the deceased - and I'm not upset that it took less than five years for 9/11 movies to be released. I'm upset that it took less than five years for filmmakers to completely sentimentalize the experience. That's what feels "too soon."

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