Christine Spines
August 04, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Oliver Stone storms into a San Francisco hotel room like a general ready to do battle. ”Hit me,” he says, tossing his ink-stained red corduroy blazer onto the couch, knitting his eyebrows into a wild bushy bramble, and assuming a playfully defensive stance.

The 59-year-old director has always been one of Hollywood’s most reliable muckrakers both on screen and off, mixing politically incendiary moviemaking with rebellious living. Now he’s in the bewildering position of having made what may be his least controversial movie ever out of the most polarizing subject matter on the planet: 9/11.

In World Trade Center, which opens Aug. 9, he chronicles the true, odds-obliterating survival of two Port Authority cops, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña), who were among the last rescue workers to be pulled from the Trade Center rubble. It celebrates family and faith and extracts the rarest of happy endings from the devastation. This is not the movie anyone ever expected from Oliver Stone.

Stone has spent most of his career eulogizing the American Dream and firing direct shots at the Washington establishment. He took on Vietnam hypocrisy with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, made the case that our own government might have killed a sitting president in JFK, examined supreme Commander-in-Chief corruption in Nixon, and even exalted enemy-of-the-state Fidel Castro in his 2003 documentary Comandante. Stone’s outspokenness made him a pariah in some political circles when, less than a month after the towers collapsed, he turned up at a public panel suggesting that American capitalist control might have instigated the ”revolt of September 11th.” At that same event, he also mused about one day making a ”bullet of a film about terrorism…. You show the Arab side and the American side…”

The movie he actually made five years later, World Trade Center, is more bear hug than bullet. Stone, who hadn’t directed a movie he didn’t write or co-write since 1997’s U-Turn, was so moved by newcomer Andrea Berloff’s depiction of the story of everyday heroism and survival that he decided to shift gears and take an intimate approach to the catastrophe, painstakingly recreating the officers’ experience.

Stunningly, once Stone began screening the finished film, he discovered that its most passionate supporters were right-wing conservatives, many of whom never thought they’d be caught dead at an Oliver Stone movie. When Paramount saw the potential appeal for red-staters, they hired Creative Response Concepts, the public relations group behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign to discredit John Kerry in the 2004 election, to enlist support from right-wing pundits. Stone, a decorated Vietnam vet and vocal critic of the war, reportedly found out about the association through a newspaper journalist. He chose not to comment to EW about the matter.

Hardcore conservatives have been rhapsodizing about World Trade Center for weeks already. ”It is one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see,” raved Fox News’ Cal Thomas in his column. Meanwhile, because the movie strikes a more earnest tone than much of his work, Stone finds himself in the unique position of justifying his softer edges. ”I think [the movie’s] very brave because it’s not afraid to be nakedly emotional,” says WTC producer Stacey Sher. ”My joke is that the only punk rock move left is sincerity.”

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