Nicolas Cage stars in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.

World Trade Center

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maria Bello

Director: Oliver Stone

*** 1/2 (out of five)

One day, perhaps, a director might have to work harder to summon the thick sense of foreboding that’s shot through the montage of early morning commuting routine that opens World Trade Center. Right now, though, the events of that clear Tuesday morning are fresh enough in the collective memory that little is needed to enhance or even evoke dread or looming tragedy.

Oliver Stone’s film narrows down from thousands of commuters in cars and on trains and ferries to a small group of Port Authority police, only two of whom actually see the shadow of a plane flying low over the city before they’re called to work at the burning towers. Nicolas Cage plays John McLoughlin, the leader of the detail, who takes his men into the concourse of the towers unaware that both buildings have been hit by hijacked planes when the first of the towers collapses on them.

It’s hard to believe that anyone could have survived the destruction of both buildings but McLoughlin did, trapped with another Port Authority policeman, Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) in the wreckage, waiting for their rescue. That wait is the bulk of Stone’s film, cutting from the two men, immobilized beneath the rubble, to their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal), their co-workers and the police, firemen and soldiers searching for survivors.

The five years since the attacks have been fraught and divisive, and Stone has tried to sidestep the political minefields by narrowing his focus down to the two men, who remain unaware of what happened until they’re pulled from the rubble the next day. It might have been a pragmatic move by a director who’s been a lightning rod for controversy, but he still relied too much on the day’s resonant drama so much that the middle section, deprived of any wider emotional friction, drags.

Lying in the rubble, unable to move, neither Jimeno nor McLoughlin speculate on what happened.

Desperate to divorce his film from the wider conflict that both preceded and followed the day’s events, Stone has tried to have his cake and eat it too — using the day’s inherent drama while neutering its awful historical and emotional power.