WASHINGTON -- Only five minutes or so pass before you realize that people have stopped eating their popcorn. It's right about the time you see the plane's shadow crossing the New York City skyline.
At that point in Oliver Stone's new movie, ``World Trade Center,'' everything comes back. Even though Stone never shows the planes hitting the towers, you remember everything, and you put the popcorn down.
In a quiet that is rare for a packed movie house, it is surprising to find yourself riveted by a replay of what you already know. How many times have we watched those buildings collapse? How many hours of footage have we seen of stunned people choking on dust and tears? How many times can we be shocked?
This time it is different. This time Stone takes us not just under the rubble and into the hearts and minds of two trapped men, but into our own.
It is the function of art to take us where we can't easily go on a random afternoon in a soulless mall theater crammed with strangers. To see things in a way we couldn't without the artist's brush, or the director's lens, or the musician's score. With this film -- whatever his other identities as conspiracy theorist and provocateur -- Stone is an artist.
The story is about two Port Authority police officers, numbers 18 and 19 of just 20 people pulled alive from Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Their names are John McLoughlin and William Jimeno, played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, respectively.
For two hours, we experience 9/11 through their eyes as they were trapped in an elevator shaft in the concourse between the two towers. The movie shifts from McLoughlin and Jimeno -- who try through conversation and humor to keep each other alive amidst crashing debris, ricocheting fireballs and bullets exploding from an overheated gun -- to the paralyzing dramas of their respective families on the outside.
It is no small feat to hold an audience's attention with little more than conversation between two men, who for much of the movie are just two heads barely visible in the dark, but Stone succeeds for this reason: We are also in the movie.
As we watch the actors perform their roles, we are also actors performing our own roles as spectators that day. Thus, in an instance of interactive movie going, horror both relived and recalled meld into one.
I talked to McLoughlin by phone after watching the pre-release screening a few days ago. He has seen the movie twice and assured me that it accurately captures what he and Jimeno experienced during the 22 hours McLoughlin was buried before being rescued. (Jimeno got out eight hours earlier.) The hardest part, he said, was seeing what his family went through while he was missing.
McLoughlin and Jimeno were among five who went into the WTC to rescue survivors when the South Tower began collapsing on top of them. They survived by the tenacity of human hope and the immense bravery of rescuers who entered that hellish burial ground at great personal peril.
What is not shown in the movie, but McLoughlin told me, is that the two had been discovered early in their nightmare by a man who left and never returned. Many hours later, two others found them. When Jimeno begged them not leave, one of them -- Marine Staff Sgt. David W. Karnes -- responded: ``We're not leaving you. You are our mission.''
They don't make goose bumps like that anymore.
Karnes, played by Michael Shannon, was an inactive Marine at the time, working as an accountant. When he heard about the attacks, he pulled on his fatigues, got a haircut, said a prayer and went to Ground Zero. He subsequently re-enlisted and served two tours in Iraq.
McLoughlin didn't know for two months after his rescue that the towers had fallen. Barely alive when he was extracted, he was put into a medically induced coma for six weeks to allow for 30 surgeries.
Asked if he thought the movie was made too soon, McLoughlin said it needed to be produced while memories were fresh. ``It's not so much what we see today, but what generations from now will see.''
``World Trade Center," nevertheless, is a must-see today -- not so much to witness the evil that men do, but to be reminded of the good of which they are capable.