Much like Paul Greengrass' "United 93", Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" is a well-made but difficult to watch theatrical experience. The two films are very similar in many regards with Stone taking a different approach in one major aspect of the filmmaking process.
Stone chooses to concentrate the story on a small group of characters. The film focuses our attention on a small group of Port Authority Policemen, led by Seargent John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and including the team's rookie, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena, "Crash"). As these men, and their co-workers, start their day, they have no idea what horrors the day will bring. But as soon as the World Trade Center is hit, they move into action. McLoughlin was instrumental in coming up with a plan after the '93 attack on the World Trade Center, so he is naturally the choice to lead an evacuation team. He asks for volunteers and these men, including Jimeno, set out to Tower 1. As they make their way, they learn of some problems at Tower 2, but go about their mission. After they have gathered equipment, they head to Tower 1 and suddenly watch as the courtyard, where people are being treated, is covered with flaming debris. Then the two towers collapse, burying McLoughlin's team. Later, McLoughlin wakes up and finds that Jimeno is still alive. They both realized they are buried about twenty feet down, but hold hope they will be found.
Stone and his team of technicians have done an amazing job of recreating the World Trade Center and the collapse. As we focus on McLoughlin and his team, we experience this horrific even through their eyes. This is a believable, and not necessarily good thing. It makes the film very painful to watch. The majority of the film focuses on Cage and Pena buried under twenty feet of rubble, trying to keep each other alive until they can be rescued. These scenes are interesting and powerful, but Stone cuts away from them to scenes involving their two wives, living through the horror. We cut to McLoughlin's wife, Donna (Maria Bello), dealing with the inaccurate information, the horror of the situation, the lack of knowledge as she has to try to calm their four kids. We also see scenes of Jimeno's pregnant wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) dealing with the same things. What these cutaways do is remind us we are watching a film, a recreation of a horrible event. Every time we are reminded of this, we have to wonder why this film was made?
As we return to Cage and Pena, we are constantly reminded that Nicholas Cage is playing this character. Maria Bello that character. Maggie Gyllenhaal that one. These are very recognizable actors and their presence, even when they are good, serves to remind us that we are watching a film. Is it necessary to see a dramatic recreation of such a horrific event?
I think it is too early for "WTC". Releasing the film just shy of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 seems like a marketing ploy. If the film were made in another five or ten years, I think it would be more easy to accept the recreated nature of the film.
"United 93" is a more successful film for a variety of reasons. The film contains no name actors and is shot in a way that makes it appear to be almost a documentary. Stone goes the big Hollywood studio route. As McLoughlin and Jimeno are pulled out of the rubble, we see a line of emergency personnel standing at the edge of the iconic view of the rubble, carrying them to safety. How much time and money was spent recreating that location? There are huge sets, expensive production values. All of this combines to make the film seem a little phony.
Also, "World Trade Center" is strangely apolitical. This is probably a good thing for any film about any aspect of this horrific day, but you would probably expect Oliver Stone to throw a theory or two in, point some fingers, try to ascertain who is behind the conspiracy. Because this doesn't happen, we have to wonder why they would go to all of the trouble to recreate the World Trade Center and put these actors, and us, through a horrific event. Because he doesn't say anything except look at these survivors, see how dramatic their tale is. We already get a sense of how dramatic any survivor's tale is. We don't really need to live through it with them.
All this said, watching "World Trade Center" is a powerful experience, but I suspect a lot of this comes from the subject matter and the horror associated with the events of the day. Because the film is based on the events of two real survivors, the film has a power it probably wouldn't have otherwise.