NEW YORK — Calling a movie “World Trade Center” makes it loom large, as if it somehow encompasses everything that happened at that site on 9/11 — a seemingly impossible task, even for a filmmaker as used to interweaving complicated plots as Oliver Stone. But as it happens, “World Trade Center” takes the enormity of that tragedy and makes it much smaller, and much simpler, by focusing on the survival stories of just two men: the Port Authority police officers who volunteered to help with the rescue efforts, only to become trapped in the rubble.
“How many survivors are there, 20? These particular two were right at the epicenter, between the two towers,” Stone said. “They only survived because they were in a strong elevator shaft. It’s an extraordinary rescue, their wives went through hell, and it’s just a beautiful story.”
“There wasn’t anything ‘conspiracy’ about it,” said Nicolas Cage, who plays one of those trapped cops, Sergeant John McLoughlin. “It’s a story of survival, about the human spirit. It was just a very positive, truthful account that seemed to be very authentic of what happened to these people, who are really heroes, and very salt-of-the-earth.”
Cage got to know the man he was portraying by spending a lot of time with him, as did co-stars Michael Peña (who plays fellow officer Will Jimeno), Maria Bello (who plays McLoughlin’s wife Donna) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who plays Jimeno’s wife Allison). “The funny thing about acting is that it’s a hard thing to describe,” Gyllenhaal said. “It’s less about, ‘Oh, she picks up a cup just like this, or talks like this, or her nails are this color.’ It’s more effective to experience than to imitate Allison. That’s what makes the story moving.”
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“She didn’t need to spend that much time with me,” Allison Jimeno said of Gyllenhaal, “but she came out more like me than she thinks.”
“The accuracy of it is almost scary,” John McLoughlin said. “There’s not a detail that was missed. Oliver and Nicolas were always calling me if they weren’t sure about something — whether I wore a hat or didn’t wear a hat, how I moved — to make sure that it was done the right way.”
Peña went a step beyond in his preparations and practically moved in with the Jimeno family so he could capture the essence of the man he was playing. “He goes, ‘Will, I’m not gonna be you, I’m gonna portray you,’ ” Will Jimeno said. “And Michael really captured my love for my wife, my children, and the love for my job. He really understands what it means to wear the shield, and I love him for that.”
Since a good third of the movie takes place in that tight space Jimeno and McLoughlin share in the rubble — in the dark, 20 feet under, unable to move — the challenge Stone faced was to keep the film moving so “World Trade Center” didn’t seem as stuck as its actors. That’s when the story opens up to become more than just the tale of two men in the dark — with interwoven moments of how the wives and their families worry and wonder (especially as it pertains to Allison, since she’s pregnant and her family thinks she’s going to lose the baby). The film also grows to encompass the reactions of the country at large as people react to the attacks and how that motivates one man — a retired Marine — to go on a mission and try to save anyone he can.
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“We didn’t want to oppress the audience,” Stone said, “so we leave the dark to get into the light of the families and the Marine’s story, a cowboy who becomes Superman that day. It’s a true story. So we get in and out of the hole quite a bit, but that was the whole point: structure the story so you leave the hole just as it gets the most exciting, so you want to know more.”
Though the actors and the families make it sound easy, it wasn’t. The McLoughlins and the Jimenos had to relive the tragedy so Stone could get it right — in the hope of providing some real catharsis for everyone else who survived that day. “I broke down and cried like a baby,” Will Jimeno said. “Oliver wanted me to look at a scene where I would be standing in front of Lobby 2, and he had captured it so accurately, I couldn’t stop crying. He had to clear the set. It wasn’t because of my injuries, but all the innocent people I couldn’t get to [and rescue].”
“Let’s face it, we all suffered,” Stone said. “America was attacked — the America that is an idea that we never thought would be violated. And it gets to you. I haven’t seen one person who hasn’t been affected.”
“This story is bigger than just two guys buried under the rubble,” Will Jimeno said. “This story is bigger than the Port Authority cops, the NYPD, the firefighters and the civilians. It’s about the human race, how we, in the face of evil, have come together. And if people say it’s too soon, it’s never too soon to remember the love and hope that came out of that day.”
And for anyone who still thinks it’s too soon, Stone lays down this challenge: “All the wimps, come out and see it.”
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