As the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks approaches, Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone presents a dramatization of a remarkable rescue on that terrible day.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, at Port Authority police headquarters in New York, the officers know little more than the rest of us as they watch the horror unfold on their TV screens.
Sergeant John McLoughlin, who had prepared disaster plans for the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan, assembles a rescue team, but it is quickly apparent that this is beyond the scope of anything they had imagined.
As flaming debris rains down, Sergeant McLoughlin and his volunteers enter the mortally wounded building determined to rescue people trapped on the burning upper floors of the 110-story tower.
As they navigate through the underground concourse between the Twin Towers, the men are unaware that another hijacked plane has struck. The buildings begin to tumble down and they are trapped, pinned by tons of debris. World Trade Center details how two of them, Sergeant McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno, survive and eventually are rescued; two of only 20 people pulled alive from the rubble.
"I really wanted to get it right. I didn't want to let John McLoughlin down," said Nicolas Cage.
Nicolas Cage stars and says meeting the real Sergeant McLoughlin helped him understand how to portray the veteran police officer. "I never met anyone before who had been tested to the level that John McLoughlin had been tested on that day, so I did go into those initial meetings with some nervousness, but he put me at ease right away and he allowed me to videotape and ask him thousands of questions about the experience, how he got through it [and] what he relied on ...images of his family, Will Jimeno, the two keeping each other alive, and prayer. So it was enormously helpful," he added.
Michael Pena plays fellow officer and survivor Jimeno. "The thing I wanted to get right, more than anything, is the brotherhood and the real feel of, like, un-cheesy love that you have for the people you work with and the people you are trying to save. There is a line he says, 'My whole life, I just wanted to be a cop.' I said, 'I think we should cut it.' But the first time I met him that was the second thing out of his mouth, so I thought I have to re-evaluate the whole situation here," he recalled.
"These two men went through the epicenter of the story, symbolically. They were at the very center of the collapse. It's a story waiting ...dying to be told," said director Oliver Stone.
Oliver Stone has a reputation for making politically-charged films riddled with conspiracy theories; but he says the true drama of the unfiltered facts stands out in this story.
"Stylistically, it is a simpler film, a modest film about working-class people and we have here a series of facts - a chain of evidence that is amazing and it is still fresh enough after five years to help us actually put together almost a documentary," he noted. "I can't say that, because it is not 'cinema verite,' it isn't United 93. It is a very tightly-connected emotional film, in the tradition of Hollywood, of [William] Wyler and [John] Ford, the tightly-connected emotions of four characters: two wives, two husbands. That's a challenge to do things that way," he explained.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Alison Jimeno, the pregnant wife awaiting news of her husband's fate. Gyllenhaal says seeing the finished film convinced her it is not 'too soon' for a film about these events.
"If it does what I believe it does, which is really honor these people, then how could it be too soon to do that? I feel like let's honor them as much as we can," she said. "It is painful to watch World Trade Center. It's a painful movie to watch, but if it is doing something so good and reminding us at a moment when the world, I don't think whatever you politics are that you can disagree that the world is in bad shape right now; there is no way to ignore that ...a movie that is so much about compassion, I think it's a perfect time for that. I think we need that."
Nicolas Cage hopes the film is not viewed through a partisan prism. "I really don't want to attach politics to this movie," he said. "This movie is a triumph of the human spirit. It is about survival [and] courage and 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, but not a downer. You walk out feeling like angels do exist. These people are heroes."
World Trade Center also features Maria Bello as Donna McLoughlin and there are cameos by many of the actual rescue workers who were at "ground zero" on 9/11. The studio, Paramount Pictures, is donating a portion of proceeds from the opening weekend to a memorial fund for victims of the terror attacks.