As he always did, John McLoughlin woke up at 3:29 a.m. It was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. The 21-year veteran of the Port Authority Police Department in New York City quietly dressed for work. It would be one of the last normal things he did that day, though he could not know that as he peeked in on each of his four slumbering children before heading into the city.
After arriving at the station, Sgt. McLoughlin barely finishes doling out daily assignments to his Port Authority officers when they are interrupted by an ominous, muffled thump. Inaccurate initial reports indicate Tower One of the World Trade Center has been hit by a commuter plane, and the officers spring into action.
In the shadow of the smoldering skyscraper, with soot and a ghostly deluge of paper raining down upon them, McLoughlin asks for volunteers to head into the complex. Three men answer his call: Will Jimeno, Dominick Pezzulo and Antonio Rodrigues. Before the team can haul oxygen upstairs, however, the unthinkable happens: The first of the Twin Towers collapses. McLoughlin, Jimeno and Pezzulo dive into an elevator shaft—which saves their lives, though McLoughlin and Jimeno are pinned beneath rubble too heavy to move. Pezzulo bravely attempts to free Jimeno, but the collapse of the second tower takes his life. It's as Sgt. McLoughlin says much earlier: "We prepared for everything ... but not this."
Only 20 people were found alive after the towers collapsed. This is the story of Nos. 18 and 19.
As their ordeal begins, their savior is still 50 miles away, in Wilton, Conn. There, former Marine Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes hears the news and feels compelled to travel to Ground Zero to search for survivors. And his determination to follow his sense of God's leading makes all the difference for John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno.
Despite its tragic context, World Trade Center delivers a powerful story that focuses on the life-giving relational bonds between its main characters. Trapped beneath tons of debris, John and Will realize they have to keep talking to stay awake and stay alive. They share poignant stories about their wives and families. John tells Will, "I married the right one, you know?" Will concurs. And on a scrap of a paper, Will manages to scratch out a note to his wife, Allison: "I [heart] U, A." Though no one can hear him, Will screams what he wants his pregnant wife to name their baby (the name she wanted): "Officer Jimeno requests his daughter be named Olivia. ... Please tell my family I love them very much."
Both men recall tender memories of moments with their wives and children (and their wives, Allison and Donna, have similar flashbacks). They talk about their careers as well. "The only thing I ever wanted to be was a cop," Will says. When John begins to feel guilty for the deaths of other officers under his command, Will tells him, "They did what they had to do. They couldn't have lived with themselves if they hadn't gone in."
Karnes and other rescuers who climb down through the wreckage to save the trapped men, put themselves at considerable risk in their selfless efforts. Willing to sacrifice his ability to walk for the sake of his comrade, Will pleads with the rescuers, asking them to cut off his leg (which they don't have to do) because it's blocking their ability to get to John.
As John slips from consciousness during his rescue, he dreams of his wife and apologizes for not being the best husband or dad. She reassures him that their relationship was hard but did have moments of magic and connection. Then, in his mind, he imagines her telling him, "Get off your a--, John. Get up, and come home." When John finally sees his wife at the hospital, he tells her, "You kept me alive."
Both wives are depicted as human, yet strong, capable and loving women who are devoted to family. Despite grief and fear, each does her best to stay engaged with her kids and help them through the heart-wrenching uncertainty.
The film strongly affirms people of faith and the role of supernatural belief during times of crisis. Will's faith in God plays a key role in him finding the mental strength to survive. Likewise, Karnes credits God with leading him toward the trapped men.
Of all the characters, Karnes' faith is the most personal. After hearing the news of the tragedy, he goes to his church to talk with his pastor about what to do. Karnes believes God has called him to go to New York City to help with the rescue operation. He tells his pastor, "God gave me a gift to be able to help people and to defend our country." That conviction leads him into the wreckage in search of survivors, whom he's convinced he will find.
Standing just outside Ground Zero, Karnes says, "It's like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we're not yet ready to see." But when others call off the search for the night, Dave keeps looking.
Underneath Karnes feet, John prays the Lord's Prayer. And Will has two visions of Jesus bringing him a bottle of water. After the second vision, he encourages John with: "[Jesus is] telling us something, Sarge. He's telling us to come home. Don't go to sleep on me, John." Will's mother is also shown praying with a rosary.
Images of New York City in the hours before the attack include a prostitute striking a provocative pose and partially pulling up her skirt. Flashbacks show each of the married couples kissing; Will and Allison are shown in bed together in modest pajamas. Allison is later shown in a cleavage-baring top. When a police officer climbs over Will in the rubble, Will jokes, "Why can't I ever get a female cop?"
We watch the tower's collapse in slow motion from inside the lobby area where John and his team are setting up. It feels eerily realistic. Chunks of the building rain down upon the trapped teammates as they sprint for an open elevator shaft. After the collapse, John is virtually buried alive, and all we see of him until the end of the film is his face; Will is pinned by a huge piece of debris. Another slab of wreckage falls violently on Dominick when Tower Two collapses, pinning his legs and part of his torso and injuring him critically (blood flows from his mouth). Delirious and in shock, he pulls his gun and fires several rounds before dying. (It's unclear why he does this.)
Fireballs, presumably from exploding gas mains, shoot past the terrified men; a piece of burning rubble scorches Will's arm badly. In the heat, the remaining rounds in Dominick's gun "cook off," further tormenting the trapped men.
Numerous scenes depict victims of the attack with bloody wounds on their faces and lots of blood on their clothes. A team of medical personnel attend to a man on the sidewalk who appears to be dead. From a distance, we see someone jumping from the building and watch that person's body fall most of the way to the ground. Will screams as the rescuers use power tools to pry him out.
Crude or Profane Language
The people struggling to deal with the horror of what has happened use quite a bit of profanity in World Trade Center. The f-word is spoken clearly once; another character starts to use it but trails off without finishing. The s-word is uttered four times, and characters take Jesus' and God's names in vain close to 20 times (including two instances of "g--d--n"). "H---" is used as an expletive half-a-dozen times; Ground Zero is twice described as "hell." Other vulgarities ("b--ch," "a--," "d--n," "p-ss" and "bastards") are spoken two or three times each. Characters also use the terms "schmuck" and "jerk-off."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Two scenes depict men smoking cigarettes. One of Allison's relatives drinks a beer. After Allison reacts to the news that the towers have collapsed by vomiting, her father orders a tranquilizer prescription for her. (She's never shown taking it.)
Other Negative Elements
We glimpse John's torso in the shower through translucent glass. We also see a police officer in his boxer shorts in the station's locker room.
United 93 offered the first big-screen re-enactment of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Before I saw it, I wasn't sure I was ready to revisit that day, and I wondered if even trying to make such a movie constituted the worst kind of entertainment exploitation. Ultimately, that film's respectful treatment of an infamous day in American history surprised me.
Nevertheless, I had similar concerns going into World Trade Center. I (like many others) questioned whether controversial director Oliver Stone (who helmed both Natural Born Killers and JFK) could possibly be trusted to honorably recapitulate the events at the epicenter of that dreadful September morning. Thankfully, Stone checked his revisionist-history and political impulses at the door. In their place, he's given us a deeply moving story of hope and fortitude. If anything, World Trade Center projects light across this black canvas in a way United 93 didn't. Voice-over remarks made by John remind us of our nation's ability to unify and of our awakened desire to help others "because it's the right thing to do."
In addition, the tightly interwoven themes of friendship, family and faith are among the most compelling of any film I've seen in a long time. I couldn't stop thinking about my wife, my parents and siblings, my close friends as I watched this drama unfold. It's evocative, heart-rending stuff that makes you grateful for your life and everyone you ever cared deeply about. I was also impressed by the positive treatment given to a Christian man and the guiding role of his faith. It's not overstating the case to say that Dave Karnes' obedience to God directly resulted in a rescue that likely wouldn't have happened otherwise.
Still, like United 93, World Trade Center is not an easy film to watch. And no one who decides to see it should make the mistake of imagining as entertainment its realistic language and violent images. But this one story at the heart of that tragic day is a moving reminder of the power of faith, hope and love. In Mr. Stone's words, "I wanted to do what I did in Platoon, to use realism to honor the people who were there at Ground Zero that day. [John and Will] stay alive because of their hearts and their connection with their families. They stop taking their lives for granted, which I think is a pretty important message to get across."