Mixing big-budget misfires and caustic opinions isn’t beloved in Hollywood. Just ask Oliver Stone — no stranger to one, new to the other after expensive epic Alexander conquered nothing.

Following Alexander with a straightforward, conspiracy-free 9/11 story — the improbable rescue and rehabilitation of Port Authority police officers from World Trade Center rubble — might seem like a ploy to get back in the game. While different from Stone’s usual filmic ideas, World Trade Center is far from an impersonal project for professional atonement.

The power of broadly defined faith, whether love for a deity or spouse, to sustain in times of crisis propels a movie saturated with spiritualism, although not to the point of becoming a religious tract. Stone’s hallmark hallucination scenes (this time of a blotched-out Jesus holding water) are as close as that gets. Rather, the infrequently crossed line here is his tendency toward exploitation.

True, World Trade Center can’t be set where it’s set or tell what it tells without some effects assistance. It might seem gruesome to compliment special effects in such a film, but the invisible technology here invites realistic re-creations that are all the more frightening. More than United 93, this is a movie those wary of revisiting 9/11 through film will have a tougher time watching.

Still, Stone can’t resist brief voyeurism, zooming in on a flickering TV for another shot of the falling towers or cutting several times to a certain lifeless body in the rubble. But it’s the honesty of human connection, not the tendency to linger on tragedy, that prevails in World Trade Center, from the eerie stillness of waiting for word on a loved one to the symbiotic survival of trapped men.

They are Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña, the locksmith in Crash), on-the-scene officers who survived Tower One’s collapse by jumping into the concourse area as it fell. (McLoughlin, who served on an attack-response committee after the 1993 bombing, knew it was the safest possible place under the circumstances.)

Trapped in an ashen hell of protruding metal, sparking wires, eruptive fires and body-pinning concrete slabs, McLoughlin and Jimeno are alive, but unable to do anything but speak to each other and hope a barely reachable pipe that Jimeno clangs off concrete will produce traceable noise.

Stone wisely disorients us in the building’s bowels, keeping his camera steady and static until we get our bearings. These scenes seem lit only by what McLoughlin or Jimeno could see — a tiny pinpoint of skylight, the spark of loose-wire electricity, quickly flashing flames.

There’s no need for rah-rah rally speeches or ticking-clock counters to signify what hours have passed. Immediacy is inherent, but the stakes of time are just as high with the years they’ve spent at home. It’s an unflaggingly inspirational breakout performance for Pena, and the rare affectation-free performance for Cage. They excel as thoughtful men contemplating and confronting unfinished business at home, personified by their memories and hallucinations of their existence.

The wait-it-out tension is shouldered by equally Oscar-worthy performances from Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Donna McLoughlin and Allison Jimeno, the officers’ wives.

Gyllenhaal, playing pregnant and the nervier of the two, shares a moment with her inquiring daughter that on its own earns a nomination. Bello’s role is trickier, as it’s more like two — a more angelic incarnation John sees in his wearying mind and the actual wife and mother keeping it together to a point where her children accuse her of not caring. Grounding John and Donna’s relationship in a family-way routine that’s habit, not loveless, makes their reunion more affecting.

Stone also gets strong supporting work from those who become allies and anchors to people in need, particularly Viola Davis (as a mother awaiting word on her son) and a nearly unrecognizable Stephen Dorff (as the first rescue worker to descend to try and rescue McLoughlin and Jimeno).

World Trade Center is incredibly moving, nearly to the level of United 93‘s primal gut-check, on its way to a similar conclusion — heroism without aspirations to greatness sprung forth that day. Somewhat ineloquent at its close thanks to corny, hammer-it-home narration, it’s still the second excellent attempt on film this year to dive headlong into the horror and hope of 9/11’s events.