Anyone who was present in New York City on September 11, 2001, will be taken straight back to that day by this movie. It's all here: the earth-shaking explosions, the dust-choked air, the shocked and bloodied people stumbling through the rubble-cluttered streets of lower Manhattan as a dense confetti of office paper flutters down from the crippled Twin Towers. The picture's painstaking simulation of these horrors is something that many who were there may not want to revisit.

Oddly, the movie is entirely without political context. This is strange, because 9/11 was fundamentally a political event: the most devastating blow so far in a relentless, near-30-year jihad against the United States by Islamic religious fanatics. That this basic fact goes unmentioned in the film is particularly unusual because the director, Oliver Stone, is a famously obsessive political filmmaker. But Stone's radical politics — vividly displayed in his delusional 1991 conspiracy thriller, "JFK," and in his offhand 2003 comment that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is "one of the Earth's wisest people" — are by now in deep disrepute. On top of that, his last movie, the $150-million "Alexander," was almost universally ridiculed by critics, and tanked at the box office. I think we may assume that Stone, chastened both personally and professionally, figured it was time at last to trim his sails.

Because of the carefully balanced approach he takes, however, "World Trade Center" ends up being essentially a melodrama — a well-made and affecting one, but a melodrama nevertheless. It focuses on two actual New York cops, Sergeant John McLoughlin (played by Nicolas Cage) and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña, in an especially affecting performance), who were among the first rescuers to arrive at Ground Zero. Stone effectively conveys their numb incomprehension at the scene that greets them. (In one expertly constructed sequence, as a bus full of cops makes its way through the wreckage-strewn streets, we see the chaos outside passing across their faces, reflected in the windows through which they peer in disbelief.) McLoughlin leads his squad into the concourse beneath the Trade Center, and they're just getting their bearings when all 110 stories of the first Tower collapse, burying them under an avalanche of cracked concrete and twisted steel lath. McLoughlin, Jimeno and some of their brother officers miraculously survive, but only barely: McLoughlin's legs are crushed and he's covered up to the neck in unmovable debris; Jimeno is similarly immobilized, pinned down beneath a huge slab of concrete.

We spend most of the rest of the movie with these two men, in these static positions, with their dirt-caked faces presented in constant close-up as they try to raise each other's spirits, telling stories about their wives and children, and thinking back to their favorite movies. They yearn for water and, most of all, for a rescue they fear may never come.

In counterpoint to these scenes, we are shown the frantic emotional desperation of their wives — Donna McLaughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — who are riveted by TV news reports of the unimaginable catastrophe as they sit stunned in their homes in upstate New York and suburban New Jersey. These women have the terrible burden of reassuring their children ("Mom, is Daddy coming home?") while at the same time attempting to sustain their own hopes, which begin to fade with each passing hour.

The most interesting subsidiary character in the movie — and the only one with even a slight political significance — is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), an ex-Marine who is similarly taking in the WTC catastrophe, along with fellow workers in his Connecticut office, via television. "I don't know if you guys know it yet," he mutters grimly, "but this country's at war." Karnes marches off to church to pray, then dons his old fatigues and heads out for Ground Zero. There he and a fellow Marine, who's also felt the call of duty to come from far away, climb through the smoking ruins in search of survivors — an undertaking they doggedly pursue even as night falls, and rescue efforts are officially (if temporarily) called off at the end of that first horrific day. Here, Stone, a combat veteran himself, gives presence to an American ideal — a selfless dedication to country — that often goes unremarked in Hollywood portrayals of U.S. soldiers.

There are shots and sequences in "World Trade Center" that reestablish, for those who may have forgotten, the mastery of the film medium that Stone has often displayed in the past. A ground-level view looking up at one of the trembling Towers, with debris raining down on the street, seems horrifyingly real. And the scene in which McLoughlin is finally rescued, and his limp body is handed up through a rough tunnel in the rubble, and we see, from his perspective, the crowd of happy faces and outstretched arms waiting to welcome him back to the world of the living, swells the heart with joyous relief. The film's sound design is also extraordinary — a thunderous accompaniment that brings back as many nightmarish memories as the appalling events we're watching.

But there are other elements of the movie that work against our complete immersion in the story. The computer-generated views of the Twin Towers — standing alone in pre-dawn stateliness at the southern tip of Manhattan, and then, later, crumpling hideously in smoke and flame — are noticeably fake, and the cheesiness of their digital fabrication is jarring. And while it would probably be churlish to complain about the flashbacks to domestic tenderness that Stone skillfully uses as transitions between scenes, some of these visions — as when Jesus appears to Jimeno, and McLoughlin's wife suddenly materializes in the darkness of his underground hell to reminisce about their life together — have a tinny ring: they tug too insistently at our heartstrings.

Every cop and fireman who entered those blazing Towers on that infamous day was a hero whose courage we can only remotely grasp. Stone may have been right to try to distill the chaos that engulfed them into a manageable narrative about just two of them. In doing this, however, he has unavoidably sacrificed a real sense of the awful scale of the events of 9/11. And in attempting to manipulate our feelings, as he does toward the end of the picture with an overload of hugs and tears, he ironically diminishes his subject. Five short years after the attack, our wildly varied feelings — shock, sorrow, anger — require no manipulation. They're too big for that — and maybe too big for any movie to contain.

— Kurt Loder

("World Trade Center" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

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