Although Stone occasionally displays his power to enthrall, the keynote of this not wholly satisfying hymn to heroism and solidarity is restraint. Stone's signature films are juiced by their feverish need to make grand sociological or geopolitical pronouncements. By contrast, "World Trade Center" based on real people and events focuses on the suffering of two Port Authority policemen trapped in the rubble and on the torment of their families as they wait for news, delivering a spare, intimate portrait of a few normal human beings broadsided by history. The film is an act of contrition compared with the disastrous, bloated "Alexander" (2004). "Dutiful" is one word to describe the result. "Slow" is, unfortunately, another.
When the dust settles after the collapse, McLoughlin and Jimeno find themselves seriously wounded and pinned down yards away from one another. Each can hear, but not see, his partner. Much of the balance of the film consists of their attempts to buck each other up, and that's where the story line runs aground. This situation, involving people in near darkness who can't move and who consist, in effect, of words alone, could have fired the imagination of a Samuel Beckett, but there isn't much for a camera or the ear to grab hold of. Occasionally, a little snippet of talk provides moving insight Jimeno's desire to be a cop was fired by a childhood enthusiasm for "Starsky & Hutch," for example but mostly the men are too busy simply trying to stay awake and alive to come alive as characters.
The other major concern of the film is the trapped officers' wives and families as they helplessly wait out that dreadful day. The real people on whom the film is based are said to have closely cooperated with first-time screenwriter Andrea Berloff, and the scenes involving Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) have an admirable authenticity. There is much loving support on display, but there's a lot of snappishness, too, as the pressure of events forces some of the normally submerged tensions of everyday family life into the open. Gyllenhaal is particularly good as an expectant mother driven nearly to distraction by her well-intentioned family's attempts to sedate her or get her to eat "for the baby."
The only other major character is Dave Karnes, an ex-Marine who walks away from a suit-and-tie job in order to don his old uniform and sneak into the disaster site to help. As strikingly played by Michael Shannon, Karnes emerges as a slightly dangerous type, a loner who broods over the crucifix and talks under his breath about the need to avenge the atrocities. He seems to be acting in another movie entirely, in which the attacks bring out a cockeyed, crusading spirit that Stone elsewhere depicts as our national pathology. Stone may have intended Karnes as a dark comment on American nationalism, or he may have simply lost control of his material. In any case, this plot line strikes a discordant note.
Sept. 11 was one of those rare events that many people experienced as a personal calamity. A handful of moments in "World Trade Center" will bring back the awfulness of that day with a rush of painful emotion. In an attempt to get at those feelings on film, Stone has for the moment walked away from his recurrent obsessions, but in the process he's ambled into Ron Howard territory, where he seems not entirely at home. Stone isn't cut out for making big, simple affirmative statements. Despite its honorable intentions, the film often has the forced, starchy feel of a schoolroom recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. Like many monuments, "World Trade Center" winds up too complacent and conventional to be truly inspiring. (PG-13) 125 min. *** S