Question: Can you make a gripping movie about two severely wounded men trapped in the dark, totally immobilized under tons of rubble and unable to speak in anything but broken sentences?
Short answer: You can if you're Oliver Stone, with your filmmaking skills concentrated on World Trade Center and your sometimes loopy political opinions--not to mention paranoia--nowhere in evidence.
The two men in question are John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), and their survival story is true (this is not a suspense movie; it's a study in terror). They are Port Authority policemen, part of an instant-response unit, who were in the concourse of the World Trade Center when the Twin Towers crashed down around them on 9/11. They have nothing to do but wait, in enormous pain, for a rescue that, considering the magnitude of the destruction, seems virtually impossible, which it was--only 20 survivors were pulled out of the rubble.
The irony that they were totally useless in the attempt to aid victims of the attack is not lost on them; they were just preparing to ascend into one of the towers when it collapsed. All they know now is that they must stay awake; to slip into unconsciousness is to slip into death. So they croak and whisper in broken sentences mainly about the families they do not expect to see again. In what may be the film's most striking image, a vision of Christ appears to Jimeno; he is offering him the thing Jimeno most wants--water--but Jimeno rejects it. It may sound banal (or possibly over the top) in the recounting, but it is a tribute to Stone's artfulness that it perfectly symbolizes the life-or-death dilemma the pair is confronting. And oddly, the man who first discovered McLoughlin and Jimeno alive was David Karnes (Michael Shannon), a former Marine, who as written by screenwriter Andrea Berloff comes across as a slightly weird religious Fundamentalist. He simply put on his old fatigues and intruded, without credentials other than his take-charge bearing, on the ruins to become a freelance lifesaver.
The movie does not confine itself to its trapped protagonists. Stone's reconstruction of the initial response to the attack--the disbelief, the mad dash of the rescuers to the disaster site, the desperate attempts to comprehend and get organized--is electrifyingly realized. In a movie age dominated by fictional disasters, it is wonderful to see Hollywood technology mobilized to make a worthwhile point, which is, finally, a very simple one: that under the impress of unimaginable chaos, human beings are capable of simple yet astonishing courage and altruism. Even in the place where a movie like this could go soft--in showing the lives of the trapped men's families--it maintains its unadorned simplicity. The waiting of the wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) mirrors that of their imperiled men, and it is full of impotent anger, of very touching attempts to maintain normality--clothes still need to be washed, meals prepared, a trip to the drugstore attempted.