Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Kafka, Meet Capra?

Tom Hanks

Steven Spielberg has declared war on fear itself--the post-9/11 heebie-jeebies, to be specific. His new film, The Terminal, is an unlikely blend of the bureaucratic nightmare scenarios of Kafka and the heroism, optimism, populism and dreaminess of Capra. Spielberg has set his sights on that most serious, fear-ridden, uncomfortable, unromantic place in contemporary American life--the airport--in an all-out campaign to re-humanize the place, even trying to make the place suitable once again for romance.

It's interesting to compare The Terminal to his previous two features. Like Minority Report, it seems to share a concern with the invasions of privacy and intrusions of technology in our increasingly security-conscious world. But where Minority Report used the paranoid sf/techno-thriller genre as an extreme expression of our Homeland Security era, The Terminal addresses similar concerns through a romantic fable, and I found the change of strategy refreshing, even, in some ways, bold and radical. Many will find the lack of believability a big problem. Where's the fingerprinting? ask some. What if the main character were Arab instead of E. European? ask others. They miss the point entirely: Spielberg wants to transform reality, make us forget it.

Catch Me if You Can, the best of Spielberg's recent films, evoked the early 60s zeitgeist, the enchantment that America once felt about the jet age. I had a great conversation with my mom last year, as she praised the film along these lines, nostalgically recollecting the way she as a girl--and society in general--once revered pilots and stewardesses as heroes of a symbolic future. To me the whole thing was succinctly evoked in Catch Me's use of Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me." The Terminal isn't about pilots (or pilot impersonators) but it clearly wants to recapture some of that lost romance in association with air travel, drawing inspiration and a sense of wonder from the connections and commingling possible only in airports, yet seems to stop short of suggesting that we can ever go back to those days. I especially like the way the film contrasts styles of patriotism, associating the flag-pin-on-the-lapel variety--the kind that lines up behind politicians and governments--with Frank Dixon, the narrow-minded bureaucrat, while on the other hand singling out jazz as an almost holy example of what to celebrate in America. (Note the golden halo light when the time comes.)

Despite the charms of the film, there are some problems. It lacks a little excitement to be a really big hit, it panders to our desires to see the best and ignore the worst in people (although you could argue that it makes a point of showing that this is just the mistake Navorsky makes concerning Amelia), but the biggest problem is that Spielberg still doesn't know how to portray women. It's as if in Spielberg's world there are regular people (guys, workers, strangers, but also daughters and mothers), and then there are women you're attracted to. The characters he has his leading actresses play often make little sense. The charming Catherine Zeta-Jones seems to have adopted the strategy of moving in a blur in order to disguise this problem. What else can she do? Spielberg clearly needs a gay best friend to play ambassador to the opposite sex. I volunteer, Steven.

But I recommend the film highly. Hanks is great, and Kumar Pallana, the delightful older Indian actor (on temporary loan from Wes Anderson?), provides some fun as a janitor who likes to watch people fall on their asses. Hey, it wouldn't be a Spielberg film without a little schadenfreude.

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