Leaving behind so many noisy high-octane films (Natural Born Killers, JFK, Wall Street, etc.), Oliver Stone settles into a cooler, kindlier mode with World Trade Center, as wise decisions and “natural born” talent trump bad-boy instincts. This is not to say the film is any less gripping than previous work. Indeed, this fact-based drama about two Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) men who were buried under tons of Twin Tower rubble and miraculously rescued is big-screen entertainment at its best.

Of course, “entertainment” is a word at odds with the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks and the near 3,000 innocent lives lost. But the film, in focusing on the two officers and their colleagues, families and rescuers, delivers an emotional and gripping two hours plus that rarely flags. While filmgoers who were close to the event will all but smell the stench of those awful days, audiences everywhere will embrace the two heroes and those who had major or even minor roles in their plight.

World Trade Center begins in the wee hours of 9/11 sweetly and quietly (therefore paradoxically) in the suburbs as PAPD Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) leaves behind wife Donna (Maria Bello) and four kids and heads into New York City on a weather-perfect Tuesday for his job at midtown’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. On duty with him are officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who lives outside the city with pregnant wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and young daughter.

Within a short time, news emerges of big trouble down at the World Trade Center. John and Will, with fellow officer Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez), become part of a team of first responders who head downtown, although ignorant of the enormity of the situation. Their fate is sealed when the three split off to attempt an evacuation in one of the towers. With John in command and fate stepping in, they are caught on a Trade Center concourse when the south tower crashes and buries them under tons of rubble. All three are among those still alive until the north tower falls and sends more debris that kills Dom as Will helplessly watches.

Now alone among the barely living, John and Will, unable to see each other or move, try to talk each other through their nightmarish ordeal. John’s plea is to just stay awake; Will’s attempts to distract include small talk about the “Starsky and Hutch” theme. But it’s the anecdotes they ultimately share about their families that most fortify, even as they weaken, times passes and hope fades.

In the world outside, wives Donna and Allison—both supported by extended families—learn their husbands are missing. While the pregnant Allison’s response is more irrational and health-threatening, Donna marshals her considerable inner strength to cope.

In the wider world beyond, news of the tragedy spreads globally. From states as far away as Wisconsin, people pour into New York to help, but the volunteer key to John and Will’s fate is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a religious ex-Marine from Connecticut. In combat clothes and with a soldier’s resolve to achieve a mission, Dave breaks through the barriers at the still-fiery Ground Zero and, stomping through the fallen mass, hears the signs of life.

The film’s most breath-stopping sequence involves the dangerous and seemingly impossible rescue effort spearheaded by Emergency Service Unit officer Scott Strauss (Stephen Dorff), paramedic Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley) and others who descend into heavy debris as unstable as “a pile of pick-up sticks.”

Performances, especially those of Cage and Peña as they lay trapped and helpless, are superb. The editing propels the drama, all the while seamlessly interspersing fadeouts, eerie silences, deafening explosions and flashes of memory and hallucination. A few gooey moments meant to punctuate the themes of love and family lack freshness, but overall World Trade Center is a triumph of high-quality, carefully considered, intelligent filmmaking that thoroughly engages. Like Universal’s United 93, the film is so good, it makes questions like “Is the country ready for this?” seem selfishly motivated or sophomoric.

—Doris Toumarkine