Eyes, voice, not much more. This is easily Cage’s best work since Leaving Las Vegas. By denying him the trademark bluff and bluster, Stone has coaxed out a tarnished, tormented performance that could well snag that second Best Actor Oscar.
The uncharacteristic restraint also applies to Stone who, for the most part, trains a steady gaze on the darkest true story of modern times. No conspiracy hysterics, no liberal chest-beating. Instead, as with Paul Greengrass’ United 93, Stone zones in on humanity amid inhumanity: haunted families herded into hospital cafeterias; a rescuer laying a blanket over a crushed corpse, hand lingering with a double-tap of quiet respect...
Which makes it all the more maddening when he splatters the schmaltz sauce over scenes already well-seasoned with emotional wallop. Like the bit where Cage and Peña roam the WTC concourse, menaced by an unholy percussion of angry detonations and squealing steel. The tension could hardly be more palpable – particularly because we all know what happens next. But still, Stone can’t resist the lazy, lofty, hand-holding of syrupy slo-mo and swelling music. Gifted with such raking fact, he makes it taste like Hollywood fiction.
Yet, beyond the trite montages of international outrage (jaw-hanging Beijing cyclists; saucer-eyed Marrakech mint tea-sippers), Stone is still capable of the brash and the beautiful. Switching between Cage and Peña’s morning commute, the grey light of gathering doom is suddenly illuminated by a sparkling visual salute to New York, New York! – maybe as a sly sneer to Bin Laden. Breached but unbowed.
Later, entombed in rubble, Peña holds his own with Cage, as the two men sing, scream, pray, sob and do the theme to Starsky & Hutch. “You okay?” calls one to the other. “I’m not hurt but I can’t move...” comes the hardly reassuring reply. Above ground, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal are the worried wives, with the latter going foetal – tear-streaked and bloated with pain and pregnancy – and the former the maternal rock, slowly crumbling in the face of her children’s anguish.
Still, the howl of grief is muffled by Stone wobbling between the sublime and the ridiculous. When he scores, the impact is spiritual (a victim’s reverse burial, winched up into a ragged rectangle of light). But then he fluffs it with dippy reveries: Jesus offering a water bottle; Bello nagging Cage about their kitchen.
And there’s a stinker of an ending with Cage signing off in voiceover about how 9/11 was evil and wrong but it’s the stories of human connection, love and tenderness that we should cling to as a positive legacy... Just in case we’re stupid. Or haven’t been paying attention for the previous two hours.