Brilliant and emotionally searing. It is Stone's finest work since Platoon
Oliver Stone returns to form with the brilliant and emotionally searing World Trade Center. The film tells the incredible true story of Port Authority Policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who were trapped beneath the rubble of Tower One for almost twenty-four hours after its collapse. While United 93 is pure conjecture, World Trade Center is a truthful account of survival told by the people who lived it. The recreation is an honest one. Oliver Stone relies on the inherent drama of the situation. He wisely avoids the disturbing imagery of the planes. Focusing instead on these two men, their rescue, and the emotional toll it takes on their families. Here are Oliver Stone and Nicolas Cage's thoughts on the film, taken from a recent press conference in New York.
Why tell this story now? What do you say to critics who believe it's too soon to dramatize such a seminal historical event?
Oliver Stone: There are three thousand dead, approximately, and twenty survivors. These two men went through the epicenter of the story. They were at the very center of the collapse. They went to the elevator shaft that saved their lives. Only two of the five made it. It's a story dying to be told, and the rescue of the men by this accountant in Connecticut, this ex-Marine, is something from the Hollywood movies. People don't believe it at first. We had previews. They didn't think that this guy existed. He did. He went to Iraq. Many of the rescuers played themselves. Each rescue was very complicated. Will [Jimeno] was a rescue onto itself. That was finished by midnight. John [McLoughlin] was rescued from about midnight to seven thirty in the morning. Why not tell that story? It's dying to be made. It's a simple, modest film about working class people. We have here a series of facts, a chain of evidence. It's still fresh enough after five years, that we can go back and have Will, John, numerous rescuers, Dave Karnes, to help us actually put it together. I can't say a documentary, but it isn't cinema verite, it isn't United 93.
What was it like meeting John McLoughlin? How did you rehearse portraying him?
Nicolas Cage: I never met anyone who had been tested to the level that John McLoughlin had been tested on that day. I did go into those first initial meetings with some nervousness, but he put me at ease right away. He allowed me to videotape him and ask him literally thousands of questions about the experience. How he got through it? What he relied on-images of his family, Will Jimeno, keeping each other alive in prayer. It was enormously helpful. I really wanted to get it right. I didn't want to let John McLoughlin down. I didn't want to let Will down; I didn't want to let the rescue team down, the families, and Oliver Stone. Without John McLoughlin's help, it wouldn't have happened.
Beyond the opening scenes, you spend the entire film trapped underneath rubble. What was it like to be stationary for so long?
Nicolas Cage: It was actually quite liberating. I'm a very kinetic actor. I like to move, but I was in that hole, boxed in like that. I didn't have to think about movement. I was able to go inward, rely on my imagination, try to re-create in some small way what John's experience might have been like.
The recreation of Ground Zero is incredibly realistic. How did you do it?
Oliver Stone: We built these vast interior halls in Playa Del Rey, California, as well as an exterior rubble set. These were vast sets. We had the actors in different modules. They never saw each other, the whole time, so that's an interesting aspect to that scene. They don't even have visual contact, it's all suggested. I think the key is lighting, I really do, there's not much camera work you can do. I think Seamus McGarvey deserves tremendous credit for the work he did. The story is always about shadow and light. They were in the darkness but they were reaching for the light. One of the great shots is Nic coming out of the hole at the end, into the light. That's why we go out to the families, because there's light there, as the day sets and their hopes diminish, you see the night comes on, so it's sort of we reversed the holes. There's a whole concept of light and dark that we're playing with.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello are amazing as their wives, Allison Jimeno and Donna McLaughlin. Why was it so important to focus on them as well?
Oliver Stone: These women went through hell. There had to be a moment in that day when they accepted that their husbands would probably not come home. That was a very important moment, to go beyond clichés. What makes Donna, married to John for thirty years, with four children, what keeps them together? It's just a cliché, if you say you're married, that doesn't mean anything. What is marriage? What are the little things in life that they will miss, take for granted. You have to ask Allison and Donna. We did, Maria and Maggie played it the way they thought was right. And for them it was hell. That's the only way we can relate to it. We can't live the New York experience, only through them.
Where were you on 9/11?
Nicolas Cage: I was at home. I got a phone call saying you can't believe what's on television. I saw those images, like the rest of us; that I'll never be able to get out of my head. It's as simple as that.
Oliver Stone: I was in Los Angeles at home, sleeping. My wife woke me up.
Did you think terrorism right away?
Oliver Stone: Yes. We had a clearer picture than John and Will did. We knew that the second plane had hit.
The Marine who found the men, Sergeant Dave Karnes, expresses anger and a wish for vengeance. Other films have avoided this reaction. Why show it here?
Oliver Stone: I think it would've been politically correct to sanitize that. I couldn't live with that. The film is accurate to every single person that was in it. Their emotions are naked.
How do you feel about the results of 9-11, the war in Iraq, the fact that Osama Bin Laden is still at large?
Nicolas Cage: Our movie ends on 9-12, that's the story we're going to tell. I really don't want to attach politics to this movie. This movie is a triumph of the human spirit. It's about survival and it's about courage. I think trying to link it to anything else right now would take away from what the movie is really about. It's a very emotional film. It is not a downer. You walk out feeling like angels do exist. These people are heroes.
Oliver Stone: You can say, where were we on September 12th, 2001? Where are we now? I think when you answer that question honestly, something went wrong. We made the point at the end of the film that eighty-seven countries, citizens from eighty-seven countries were destroyed. Most of them were civilians. It's the nature of modern warfare since Dresden, since World War II. It's gotten worse and worse and worse. I just hope to God that we can move to a peaceful world wherein we can respect the rights of civilians. I don't know how to do that except through international bodies and a sense of commitment from everybody to stop this destruction of civilian life.
World Trade Center open this Friday and is rated 'PG-13' for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language.