'World Trade Center' a Masterpiece

"You kept me alive!"

I wasn’t skeptical when I was invited to a private screening of Oliver Stone’s upcoming "World Trade Center" movie. I was downright cynical. As a conservative I’ve long considered so much of his work the bane of my existence. From "Platoon" to "Salvador" to "Born on the Fourth of July" to "JFK," and let’s not forget last year’s ghastly "Alexander," Stone has delivered one left-wing screed after another, specifically intended, I’m convinced, to bring my blood to the boiling point. When I learned a few months ago that he was working on a project about 9/11, I fully expected another tiresome, loathsome Bush-lied-thousands-died production designed to titillate the Michael Moore left-wing fringe. It is why, when the movie was ready for screening and my friend told me I was going to like it, I thought he was mad. But as a personal favor, I went. And by the time I digested that triumphant line, "You kept me alive!" I was ready to put everything I’d previously felt aside.

Let me be unequivocal. Stone has delivered a masterpiece.

You kept me alive. I wanted to preview this movie free from any outside influences, so I made it a point not to read anything about it in advance. I didn’t know what viewers surely will know, namely that this film deals with the successful rescue of two trapped policemen in the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings. The emotional roller coaster was that much more pronounced for me, since I didn’t know how the ordeal would end, but it makes no difference, really. When Officer John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) emerges from the rubble, is rushed to the hospital and, in the pandemonium, briefly is reunited with his wife, Donna (Maria Bello), greeting her with those words, you will weep, too.

It would be enough simply to plumb the story of the extraordinary rescue of these poor men, buried up to their necks for almost a day in broken concrete, twisted metal, dust and crushed glass — the shattered, smoldering remains of what once were two proud skyscrapers, and now had become a shocking testimony to the reality that a worldwide terrorist enterprise successfully had attacked America. Add some awesome special effects — ever wondered what it must sound, look and even feel like having a 110-story building come crashing down on you? — and you’d have a box-office hit.

But Stone chose to dig deeper. Most of the movie focuses on the two policemen, McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (played by Michael Pena, and here let’s also recognize the heart-wrenching performance of Maggie Gyllenhaal as his wife, Allison), pinned under the devastation, with only their dusty faces partially visible, talking to each other, using their voices and their words as the only instruments available in their darkened tomb to keep each other alive, as their crushed bodies slowly seek surrender from the physical agony of countless injuries.

What keeps them alive are the very footers of civilized society that our cynical, enlightened popular culture is seemingly so desperate to discard: fraternal love, devotion to family, allegiance to country and faith in God. Each element is powerfully developed, not just in the officers’ dialogue, but also in the cutaways to the battered co-workers and the two anguished families anxiously praying for a miracle, in the quiet resolve of the former Marine who dons his uniform and enters Ground Zero, ultimately to make the discovery, and most poignantly in Jimeno’s visions as he teeters on the brink of death. A Catholic, Jimeno sees not an ambiguous Hollywood representation of a higher power, but the sacred heart of Jesus. It is — this being a true story, it was — these values that kept these two heroic policemen tethered to life.

You kept me alive. After 9/11, we pledged as a nation that this atrocity was something we would never forget. We declared that loudly on our bumper stickers, on our license plates, on our billboards and in our corporate advertisements — a national "post-it" note on our collective conscience, as it were. Yet only five years later the fires of purpose, stoked by a nation’s sorrow, rage and commitment to justice, are waning. For a brief moment after that fateful day, there was a sense of national unity unseen since the glory days of the Greatest Generation a half-century before. Now where are we?

"World Trade Center" pleads with us to remember that moment and to keep it alive. It is not appropriate for the very young, of course. It is appropriate, indeed necessary, for everyone else, just as it is appropriate, and necessary, for Stone’s critics now to salute him, and thank him for the gift he’s given his country.