As I try to do with most movies, I went into Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center knowing as little about it as I could, avoiding its trailers, ads and advance press coverage. And as often happens,
this strategic ignorance led me straight into a surprise.

Here’s the movie I expected to see, based on a few specks of information absorbed, I suppose, through a process of inescapable cultural osmosis: On 9/11, Nicolas Cage is a heroic New York firefighter who, with his equally heroic firefighter pals, fights his way into the stricken towers and then spends most of the movie battling the blazes, dealing with the chaos and heroically rescuing victims until the buildings’ cataclysmic collapse.

Granted, that didn’t seem like a movie with a challenging take on the most politically charged crime since the Kennedy assassination. But it did sound like a potentially very exciting and emotionally revelatory two hours–especially coming from a filmmaker as viscerally gifted as Stone.

Alas, that film existed only in my imagination.

The real World Trade Center turns out to be a much different animal. First off, Cage isn’t a firefighter, he’s a Port Authority cop named John McLoughlin. Yes, he does get dispatched from his usual post on 42nd Street to the Twin Towers just after the first attack, and enters the burning complex along with several determined colleagues.

But it is at this point, almost exactly a half-hour into the film, that the tower collapses. The result: We spend most of the rest of the movie (which runs 129 minutes) with McLoughlin and one of his fellow officers, rookie Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), as they lie trapped, badly injured and totally immobile beneath tons of smoking steel and concrete.

I trust I haven’t spoiled anything for you, but I do think that prospective viewers should know at least this much about what awaits them.

As for evaluating the experience just described, the expected angles of approach, no doubt, would be to look at the movie as an Oliver Stone film, a political statement or simple entertainment. Since World Trade Center feels nothing like most Oliver Stone films–which means, in part, that it carries no overt political charge–let’s start with entertainment.

The movie’s first 30 minutes are so tautly, expressively shaped that they remind you what a terrific craftsman Stone is. From the pre-dawn hours when McLoughlin and other officers are viewed in their homes, then driving into Manhattan and suiting up for work, through their trip downtown and into the swirl of horror and confusion that engulfs the trade center, the film has power, pungency, even a quiet poetry.

And then, quite literally, the roof caves in.

From then on, the film must survive on a much thinner dramatic diet. Being trapped with two soot-covered men for 90 minutes in a tiny space is, to say the least, a test for viewers and filmmaker alike, and not at all an obvious scripting choice for anyone attempting to make a big, accessible, mainstream movie about a traumatic subject.

In that sense, it can genuinely be considered daring, even admirable. I can think of other persuasive defenses as well. Maintaining such a dark, tightly constricted focus (the effective opposite of the movie I imagined) forces the viewer’s attention inward, away from manic outward action and toward the intangible qualities that sustain people in such trials–qualities like hope, faith, love and a sheer, inexhaustible will to live.

The story, especially as you think of it afterward, also manifests a compelling mythic shape, moving from a journey down into a literal hell, through the soul-shaking trials encountered there, and culminating finally with a return to the light that feels like a true rebirth or resurrection.

And yet, for all these commendable and interesting-sounding attributes, the film has a problem inherent in dealing with the predicament of two immobilized cops: However you slice it, prolonged on-screen stasis is un-cinematic and therefore potentially–perhaps inevitably–boring.

I’ve just spent a half-hour trying to think of examples of movies I like where the characters remain static through most of the story. There must be some, but the fact that I can’t think of one says something. Movies move. Ones that don’t move tend toward the stultifying or soporific, and often draw the filmmaker toward devices that hope to provide visual and dramatic variety but end up feeling like an aesthetic compromise.

Here, those devices mainly involve cutting away from McLoughlin and Jimeno to look in on their families, including their respective wives, Donna (Maria Bello) and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as they wait and worry and hope against hope. Granted, these scenes have obvious dramatic purpose. But they’re also slightly out of key with the scenes in the WTC hellhole, compared to which they feel soft-edged, predictable and melodramatic, almost as if they belonged in a different (and lesser) movie.

Ultimately, to bring off a film with World Trade Center‘s ambitions, a director needs one thing above all: a super-exceptional script. (The trapped-duo scenes alone would seem to require a combination of Samuel Beckett and David Mamet.) Stone, who usually writes his own scripts, finds an ambitious and workmanlike but finally rather conventional effort in this film’s screenplay, credited to first-timer Andrea Berloff.

Though the story of McLoughlin and Jimeno is true, and Berloff doesn’t violate its factualness, the effect of her transposition reduces an excruciating reality to a dramatic package that’s all too neat and keyed to comforting uplift. And I must admit that this result forces me into a change of tune. In the past, I’ve scored Hollywood for avoiding the subject of 9/11 and its implications. But if World Trade Center is an indication of a typical, mainstream approach to the subject–and I think that’s exactly what it is–then perhaps this one topic is just too tricky for Hollywood, which should stick to slick escapism after all.

Yet, although it took the major studios five years to dare broaching the subject, this year has brought two excellent examples of the potential to be found in strikingly unorthodox approaches. One, Paul Greengrass’ United 93, daringly dispensed with the two great pacifiers of Hollywood convention, stars and central characters,
in crafting a riveting real-time account of the
face-down between hijackers and passengers in a doomed airliner. And Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns offered a very oblique but fascinating pop meditation on America’s post-9/11 internal conflicts, all of it deftly disguised as just another splashy superhero spectacular.

These films not only manage to avoid the homiletic and bathetic in taking their very unusual imaginative tacks, they also remind us of the well-nigh inexpressible enormity of 9/11 precisely because they abjure outworn modes of expression. World Trade Center, much to the contrary, is a sincere and self-evidently well-intended film that unfortunately leads us only into the realm of the expected, where any temptation toward political analysis or collective self-scrutiny is buried beneath an avalanche of bromides about “courage” and “heroism” and the like.

So how did Oliver Stone end up making a 9/11 film that’s being touted by right-wing radio hosts? Though I’m a great admirer of many of the director’s films, it’s my impression that he’s been highly leery of making challenging political features–his forte–since op-ed pundits made his name a synonym for “conspiracy kook” after JFK and viewers rejected Nixon. More recently, he told Newsweek that the critical and commercial failure of Alexander left him feeling “triply crushed.”

Note that verb, because I think it signals the inevitable auteurist angle of World Trade Center. Oliver Stone feels crushed so he makes a film about two guys who get crushed. The new film is all about survival–which, in Stone terms, means survival in Hollywood. The only question that remains is, to what end? So that he can make more hugely expensive, expertly tooled movies that say nothing at all challenging? That hardly seems worth the ordeal. But then, filmmakers live to make films.

World Trade Center opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle.