Sunday, June 20, 2004

Movie Review: A Terminally Ill Terminal?

Wow I know the Entertainment critics aren't that fond of Spielberg. Despite his forays into serious cinema (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, etc.) he often get's lambasted for his mawkish sentimal feel good or adventure movies or when as when he tried to clean up Kuberick's psychotic AI movie. his latest effort and Tom Hank's attempt to shift into playing older physical comedy now that his salad days in hero-stud roles are done, is the movie "The Terminal".

I have seen this movie and I'd only heard one review before seeing the movie. That review heard on the radio however was almost enough to convince me to not see the movie. For your edification here are a line up through Slate of some reviews.

I'm glad I didn't listen and in fact did choose to see the movie. It was overall an enjoyable movie with a lot of usual movie conventions. However the reason why I was most glad to see the movie however was that it allowed me to become aware of hawking exactly how far American self-congratulatory mythology has become.

To see why let's see the "true story" via the ever crisp writing of the CSM of the actual real life story the movie was "based upon".

"The Terminal," which opened Friday in the United States, recounts the hardships of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a fictitious Balkan traveler stranded at New York's JFK Airport. His homeland erupts into civil war and his passport becomes void. He can't officially enter the US, but neither can he return to Eastern Europe. So he lives for months in the hermetically sealed microcosm of an airport concourse.

Some of Navorski's survival tactics are similar to Nasseri's, like bathing in the washroom, setting up a living area on a bench, and accepting food vouchers from airport workers. But where the movie has embellished the story with madcap adventures and a fling with a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nasseri's life consists mostly of reading. His most recent book is Hillary Clinton's autobiography. "Maybe I don't do it like Tom Hanks does it," he says. "My day is just like inside a library. Silence."

Lately, though, he's had more visitors than usual. This urban legend is already the subject of three other films, two of them documentaries. Reporters and tourists visit and talk with him all day at his makeshift press lounge. "Is this public entertainment?" Nasseri asks with a pained grimace. Yet, at the same time, "Alfred," as he is also known, seems to relish his celebrity.

"He is known throughout the world and people come to see him," says Valérie Chevillot, who can see Nasseri's encampment of assorted boxes, bags, and suitcases through the window of her Phénix clothing boutique. "But no one really knows him."

The original crisis began when Nasseri tried to travel to England from Belgium via France. But he lost papers declaring his status as an Iranian refugee. It's been confirmed that he was expelled from Iran in the 1970s, but the famous squatter has since rejected his heritage - even denied he can speak Farsi - under the belief that his Iranian background is the cause of cause of his troubles. No family members have ever contacted him. "Police say they don't live," he says cryptically.

Summarizing the details of Alfred's bureaucratic nightmare since then isn't easy. Nasseri waited at Charles de Gaulle while Britain, France, and Belgium played a shell game with his case for years. At one point, in a classic Catch-22, Belgian authorities said they had proof of his original refugee papers, but insisted he pick them up in person - yet wouldn't let him into the country. He has been jailed several times, and technically could be removed from the airport at any time.

After a lengthy legal battle waged by his lawyer, the French government finally gave him the necessary documents to reside in France and legally travel.

But he refuses to use them.

Nasseri is convinced he has no official identity. If he leaves France, he says, "There are soldiers there who shoot you dead." So he won't venture further than the first floor of the terminal. "I stay until I obtain my origin identity," he often repeats.

Yeah there's a guy who's been stuck at an airport for fifteen years over paperwork issues and his own personal paranoia. As some have surmised this isn't exactly a healthy situation.
Other theories abound as to why Nasseri persists with his self-imposed exile. "In my opinion, Alfred needs professional help to get him adapted to the outside world," says Alexis Kouros, an Iranian documentary filmmaker and doctor, who tried to help him leave for Brussels while making his film, "Waiting for Godot at de Gaulle," in 2000. "He used to be a normal person. By spending 15 years in that place, he has become institutionalized," says Mr. Kouros, who worries Alfred's mental health is worsening.

Instead Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have turned this story into a myth about Americana. In order to rationalize why a human being would want to stay for a year (much less fifteen) - the period in which the movie's storyline takes place - in an airport when most people can't wait to leave they invent this stick-up-his-arse by-the-book Homeland Security Airport Director played to the hilt by Stanley Tucci that is constantly obstructing Novorsky or attempting to trick him into breaking a law so that he can be incarcerated.

This allows Hanks' character Victor to become a good-natured hapless person hassled by "the system" which is insensitive to pragmatic concerns in its obsession over the rules that is perpetually trying to find a way to get around that system to achieve personal meaning and success. As such it makes a better metaphor for the frustrations of the American public given the contradictory advice and uncertainty of modern life, sweetened by a good dose of congratulatory maudlin sentiment about how everyone "still wants to come to America" despite it all. At once it becomes transformed into a story about American insecurity about their socioeconomic culture while simultaneously reassuring them of the "universal virtues" of their cultural hegemony that people outside the US still find irresistably attractive. I confess to actually shedding some tears over the cheap hit about Viktor keeping a promise he'd made mostly because I too have made some promises I would go to any length to keep to those that matter to me, but the focus of the promise being on "jazz" - the only unique modern American musical artform - as a hypnotic and fascinating bit of American culture appealing to people overseas is a little much and ham handed.

Why can't Viktor be trying to get to the United States to visit a long lost relative or just interested in a business venture that is crucial to the success of his life back in the fictional Krakosia? Those would have been more realistic and just as potentially sentimental reasons as the finally completely self-indulgent reason that Spielberg and Hanks pick in order to ram home the point that "American culture is good" even as they subversively critique the new security and economic environment that has come to dominate our lives.

In the end Spielberg is peddling a myth. It is a myth that when he celebrated it in "Saving Private Ryan" had quite a bit of justification for such glowing adoration and devotion. The United States of America caught with its pants down in Abu Gharaib and fumbling to try desperately avoid a Vietnam redux in the desert sands of Iraq doesn't quite muster the same sort of patriotic and cultural triumphalism that is conveyed in this movie. I love America don't get me wrong, but reputation must always be based upon matching commitments in deeds and facts. The bank account of good will toward America on all fronts economic, political, etc. is just about been run dry by the continuing withdrawals we have made without balancing inspiring acts of goodness and high caliber competence matched by moral leadership.

Until Americans realize that we simply can't live on the successes of previous generations but must give the world new reason to respect us, we will continue to decline in prosperity and potency. The cliches of self-reassurance about how we really still are the best place to live on earth are going to continue to ring more and more hollow as time passes by unless we change course. There is still greatness in America but it is a challenge for our generation to live up to rather than a conceit that we can rest our laurels on.

Witnessing just how far we have fallen such that the conventions of American cultural triumphalism in the movie "The Terminal" become increasingly sour with jaded cynicism about the shortfall of our actions compared to our rhetoric is the real reason why one should watch this movie.


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