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By Pete Vonder Haar | August 10, 2006

I’d have assumed nobody needed to be reminded about the particulars of September 11, 2001, but in a country where more people vote in a televised karaoke contest than in the Presidential election, one can never be sure. Here’s the short version: hijackers commandeered four aircraft that morning, crashing two into the World Trade Center – causing its collapse – and one into the Pentagon. The fourth, United flight #93, crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, presumably as a result of passengers attempting to retake the plane. Oliver Stone’s new film, “World Trade Center,” tells the story of two NYC Port Authority cops who astonishingly survived the destruction of the Twin Towers.

Nicolas Cage plays Sgt. John McLoughlin, who leads a squad of first responders into the buildings to help with rescue efforts. Among his team, Officer William Jimeno (Michael Pena), who makes it through the collapse with McLoughlin. Both are trapped under about 30 feet of rubble, however, and must try to stay conscious while hoping that someone will get them out. Meanwhile, their respective families (featuring Maria Bello as Donna McLoughlin and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Allison Jimeno) watch their televisions and wait by their phones for word on the missing men.

Conspiracy theories and flights of speculative hindsight are notably absent in “World Trade Center.” This isn’t the Stone of “JFK” or “Salvador,” who was quick to look at the machinations behind events and cast his barbs accordingly. Here he does nothing of the sort, making it hard to identify “WTC” straight out of the gate as an “Oliver Stone film.”

Unfortunately, many might peg it as a “Ron Howard film” instead. True story or not, “World Trade Center” is almost unforgivably sentimental. Look, I’m the last person to question the bravery of the men and women who gave their lives trying to help those trapped in the towers. I’d have been trying to crawl into a storm drain while simultaneously crying for mommy and pulling my shirt over my head, personally, but there’s such a thing as “too much.” Every heroic action has to be shot in slow motion, and every poignant moment must be punctuated by Craig Armstrong’s swelling orchestral score. Even in the midst of one of those rare moments in human history when almost everyone involved acted in a wholly selfless and noble fashion, Stone can’t resist laying it on even thicker. “World Trade Center” eventually stops feeling like a remarkable story of survival and more like a Hallmark Network presentation.

The cast, at least, is pretty solid, though Bello and Gyllenhaal aren’t given much to do besides wring their hands. Cage never quite masters that New York accent, which doesn’t matter a whole lot when you’re playing a guy who spends ¾ of the movie with his mouth full of dust. Pena is the best of the lot, which won’t be a surprise to anyone who caught him in “Crash” or “The Shield.” Michael Shannon also strikes a slightly unsettling note as devout ex-Marine Dave Karnes, who re-dons his fatigues and goes to NYC to help out, eventually discovering the location of the two cops.

Of course, “United 93” failed to score much box office success in large part because it wasn’t designed to make us feel better about everything we’ve screwed up since 9-11. There was no feel-good ending, because the endgame of that day has yet to play out. Conversely, “World Trade Center,” ends with a picnic, where McLoughlin and Jimeno say thanks to everyone who helped get them out. Meanwhile, a small pre-credits blurb pointedly informs us that Karnes went on to serve two tours in Iraq.

No word on if he made the picnic.

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