I’m no movie expert, but I know this much: When it comes to making a film about a national tragedy that robbed nearly 3,000 people of their lives, spawned wars, shaped both foreign and domestic policy for years and still looms as a vindictive colossus over the memories of millions, one must take special care. 

If one is not careful, regardless of the intent to memorialize victims or uplift survivors, such a film could prove to be a gauche spectacle with its heart appearing to be in the right place, but nevertheless lacking a regular beat.

Such is the case with “9/11,” a film released on Sept. 8 about  five strangers who become trapped in an elevator during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The movie is based on James Carson’s play, “Elevator,” and its stage roots are glaringly apparent. The lion’s share of the running time focuses on the five main characters huddled in the crowded and smoking elevator.  As they desperately flounder in search of a way to escape, the characters bond with each other in a way only life-or-death situations will allow.

The cast consists of exactly the type of people you’d expect to find in a movie about a disaster. There’s the “custodial engineer” Eddie (Luis Guzmán), full of wisecracks and Brooklyn bonhomie; reticent and openly racist bike messenger Michael (Wood Harris), eager to return home for his daughter’s birthday party; the beautiful but mentally troubled Tina (Olga Fonda); and billionaire Jeffrey Cage (Charlie Sheen) with his wife Eve (Gina Gershon), who are in the middle of finalizing their divorce. Through the ordeal, elevator dispatcher Metzie (Whoopi Goldberg) does her best to offer moral support and reassurance of rescue over the intercom.

Going in to the film, I was a bit surprised that director Martin Guigui chose an actor with a reputation as brindled with controversy as Charlie Sheen's to lead in a film about such a sensitive subject. (His casting was controversial from the start, in fact.) But after seeing “9/11,” I am completely gobsmacked that Guigui beheld the man’s acting in this film and deemed it fit for wide release. 

Sheen’s performance is so ham-fisted, his mannerisms so awkward, that one must presume his Jeffrey Cage character to be Nicolas Cage’s fraternal twin brother, or at least his second cousin. I honestly feel that I could not accurately judge the other actors’ performances, because they all appeared stellar compared with Sheen’s. 

The group dynamic in the film is reminiscent of “The Breakfast Club,” which I think worked in its favor, but might’ve been more memorable in a longer film. Between a few unsuccessful attempts to break out of the elevator via the door and escape hatch, the characters have more than enough time to get to know one another. 

The interaction is always written gracefully (I found Eve’s monologue to Michael, a black man, about how Sheen’s character pulled himself out of poverty with absolutely nothing but sheer grit to be cringe-inducing, but it was certainly interesting). Plot lines such as Michael’s callous discrimination and Tina’s implied abuse of prescription drugs are intriguing, but I didn’t feel as though I had enough time to be fully invested.

Ultimately, I was eager to see whether these characters survived the tragedy or not, but that’s mostly because I was curious to see how they would escape. The film efficiently handles suspense, playing on the viewer’s knowledge of the death toll and the cast’s obviously hopeless situation to cast doubt on the assumption that it will end in a triumphant breakthrough.

So, what do I rate the film? While it is hammy, too short and puts money in the pocket of the blubbering zit who is Charlie Sheen, it does tell a decent story that tugs at the heartstrings, if only a little bit. In the end, the film deserves no other label than "completely unnecessary." I’ll give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Contact lifestyle writer and opinion editor Hunter Moyler at hunter.moyler@richmond.edu.

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