Most of the action in Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," Hollywood's first look at the terrorist attacks that destroyed two of the world's tallest buildings, takes place far below the surface.
The film, opening nationwide Wednesday, meticulously recounts the hours that two police officers spent trapped under the concrete and twisted steel of the collapsed towers, talking to each other to stay conscious until their rescue.
"I was looking for a truth about how people survive," Stone told The Associated Press. "It was an inspiration because it was a true story. ... You couldn't have made it up."
Months after "United 93," the Paul Greengrass film about the fourth hijacked jetliner on Sept. 11, 2001, became a modest commercial success, the makers of "World Trade Center" are banking on a much wider audience for a rare Sept. 11 story with a happy ending.
"It's going to do solid business," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations. Compared to "United 93," "it's more of a traditional movie in terms of its storytelling technique, and you have Nicolas Cage."
The Academy Award-winning Cage is the biggest name in the film, in the role of Port Authority Police Sgt. John McLoughlin. The movie also stars Michael Pena as Officer Will Jimeno and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello as the officers' wives.
McLoughlin led a team of five Port Authority officers into the concourse between the two towers just before the south tower collapsed. McLoughlin, Jimeno and Dominick Pezzulo survived the first towers' collapse. Pezzulo was later killed when the second tower collapsed. After 22 hours, McLoughlin was one of the last of 20 people to be pulled from the towers alive.
Cage and Pena are seen for most of the movie trapped underground, caked in dust and ash and trying to talk to each other to stay alive. Jimeno said that the officers did not know the towers had collapsed until they were rescued.
At the time the second tower collapsed, Jimeno said, he thought a second plane had just hit the trade center; McLoughlin thought terrorists had detonated a truck bomb to target first responders.
"We never knew," Jimeno said. "Then we heard gunfire. ... We at one point thought the cops were shooting it out with the bad guys." They later deduced that they had heard the collapse of nearby 7 World Trade Center, which had housed weapons as part of a city emergency center.
The two men were paid consultants; Jimeno said Stone was intent on recreating every detail of their experience, quizzing him about the direction in which guns were carried on the officers' belts and Jimeno's vision of Jesus holding a bottle of water.
Jimeno called the film 95 percent accurate. For instance, in the film, Jesus hands Jimeno the bottle of water, which is not what happened in his vision, and in real life "there wasn't a heart on his chest. Oliver added it. And that was a nice touch."
Stone, accused of politicizing history in "JFK," "Nixon" and his films about Vietnam, said that the script by Andrea Berloff focused solely on the officers' survival story, leaving no room for editorializing.
"I try to do things as accurately as possible. I know that I'm controversial, but I've always made the same effort," Stone said. "I was in their world. I was not putting my own interpretation on it."
Eventually, there could be five to seven good films about Sept. 11 — there were "that many about Vietnam" — and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks could become one of them, Stone said. "There's another story beyond that day, but that's another movie," he said.
"United 93," an independent film starring unknown actors, was made for $15 million and grossed a respectable $31 million in wide release. "World Trade Center" was made for $60 million-plus, and with a PG-13 rating has been marketed heavily to a younger audience. A voiceover in one commercial offers: "Every generation has a defining moment. This was ours."
To gauge community reaction in New York, where most of the 2,973 people were killed, the filmmakers spent nearly a year reaching out in advance to family members and city leaders and held multiple advance screenings for families, survivors and first responders.
The ruined trade center set was in Los Angeles, where most chaotic street scenes were also shot.
Many were won over.
Lee Ielpi, who worked for nine months recovering bodies from ground zero, including his firefighter son, expressed an early concern: "I would hope this wouldn't be a Hollywood glitz production with major love scenes and a lot of fiction in it."
He loved the film. "It portrayed in a small sense the horribleness of that day and what the people had to go through," Ielpi said.
Others have not reacted as well. A community group is holding weekly group discussions for survivors or others who have difficulty with the film's recreation of the attacks. Lisa Orloff, executive director of World Cares, said many felt that timing the film's release so close to the attacks' fifth anniversary was insensitive. Some family members, including the widow of Pezzulo, who dies in the film, said the film is too soon and too graphic.
The film's producer, Michael Shamberg, said the filmmakers were supported by many of the participants, "and they feel strongly it is never too soon to remember the courage and heroism of that day."
Jimeno said he wants the focus to be on his rescuers. He points to the film's promotional poster, showing the two officers dwarfed by the twin towers.
"Look at how insignificant we look," he said. "We are here because of the love and support of so many people. This film is about everybody."