Monday, May 23, 2011

'Terminal' Points

In recent films, Tom Hanks has explored odd avenues -- and has shown signs of running out of gas

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

In addition to this cops and robbers cluster of films, Tom Hanks explored a couple other side streets of institutional life in the first decade of the new century. In The Terminal (2004), yet another Spielberg film, he plays Vicktor Naborski, a tourist who becomes an involuntary immigrant when revolutionary violence in his fictive home country of Krakozhia causes his passport to be invalid, leaving him marooned in the confines of New York’s JFK airport. This was another juicy acting role, one that required mastering an Eastern European accent. It’s worth reiterating that I don’t find the proposition that Hanks was thinking chiefly in these terms particularly problematic for my argument, as it rests on the way a historically grounded vision emerges amid other considerations. To that end, what we get is a warped immigration saga, in which a man who is pushed into the antiseptic institutional setting of an airport is forced to make a life for himself as a permanent resident in what was made to be a liminal space. He must do so amid a series of challenges, not the least of which is a petty federal official (Stanley Tucci) who is desperate to get rid of him, and eager to punish him when he finds he can’t.
Whatever his legal status, the movie goes out of its way to establish Vicktor Naborski as an honorary American. He’s a jazz aficionado, a hobby that we learn is an act of filial piety to his now-dead musician father, in whose honor Viktor has made the trip. He also befriends a multicultural array of airport workers, making substantial contributions toward forging them into an improvised by real community. Perhaps most importantly, Naborski becomes the quintessential American dreamer when he sets his sights on an airline employee (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who passes through JFK every few weeks. Though there’s a seemingly inevitable Spielbergian sentimentality in a movie that is a fantasy on a number of levels, it’s nevertheless a credit to the filmmakers, especially screenwriters Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, that the story is not quite predictable. Hanks, however, is once again a regular guy with a heart of gold.
He made a serious attempt to challenge that perception with Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). This movie, which closely tracks the 2003 book by CBS producer George Crile, tells the story of how a randy Texas congressman teamed up with a maverick CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a wealthy Republican socialite (Julia Roberts) to quietly engineer the successful U.S. effort to aid rebels in the overthrow the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan and help precipitate the end of the Cold War. Hanks plays the title character, and never quite musters quite enough sleaziness to be truly believable in the part. But the movie nevertheless does a remarkably good job of illustrating the book’s argument, which is to show how a few knowledgeable people can demonstrate enormous leverage in redirecting the entire federal government if they have the knowledge, will, and social skills (which involves literally and figurative odd bedfellows) to get the job done. 
 There is a flip side to this story, which the movie acknowledges, albeit half-heartedly. The very success in the ouster of the Soviets created a power vacuum that ultimately led to the success of the Taliban in taking control of Afghanistan, thus giving Osama bin Laden the base of operations he needed to launch 9/11 a little over a decade later. We see Hoffman’s character express concerns about such an outcome late in the story, and see Wilson unsuccessfully lobby for small allocations for schools in Afghanistan, making him seem prescient rather than an enabler of what came later. As ever, Hanks is finally a good guy. Apparently the original screenplay had a darker ending, but it was reputed that Hanks “couldn’t deal with this 9/11 thing,” according to someone close to the production.
Indeed, by the second half of the decade, it increasingly seemed Hanks was having difficulty choosing material and rendering performances that had quite the freshness and power of his nineties heyday. Whatever their artistic merit, The Terminal and The Ladykillers failed to generate the hit benchmark of $100 million – two successive disappointments, and Hanks’s first in over a decade.
No such commercial problems afflicted The Da Vinci Code (2006) and its sequel, Angels and Demons (2009), two blockbuster movies based on the hugely commercial novels of Dan Brown. But the kind of critical praise that had been routine since the time of Philadelphia was conspicuously absent in Hanks’s portrayal of Harvard “symbology” professor Robert Langdon. Though both are nominally institutional critiques – one negative, the other more positive – of the Catholic Church, both are relatively uninteresting. The book and film versions of The Da Vinci Code generated enormous controversy at the time of their respective release, owing in part to their sensational argument that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to a daughter (whose heir is Hanks’s co-star, French actor Audrey Tautou). The film version of Da Vinci is all too faithful to the book in its tedious – and historically dubious – lectures on church history. (One can only imagine that the great Ian McKellen, who plays a British colleague of Langdon, focused his mind on the dreck he recites by thinking about his paycheck.) Insofar as Hanks, himself a lapsed Catholic, participates in a project critical of the church, he’s hardly outside an American mainstream with plenty of reasons to be unhappy with it. And as the institution in question is not really American anyway, it’s arguably outside the purview of this chapter. In any case, it can’t really be said that he’s all that hostile to organized religion per se. The movie ends with him kneeling, as people have for thousands of years, at the tomb of Mary Magdalene a woman he and others regard with reverence, regardless of whoever happens to occupy the Vatican.
There’s no evidence that Hanks has any intention of giving up his acting career; I write these words on the eve of the release of Larry Crowne, a movie in which he once again teams up with Julia Roberts and also directs. But it’s also clear his work as a showbiz magnate is important, and is likely to become more so. In 2009, Hanks and his longtime partner Gary Goetzman produced The Great Buck Howard, a movie starring his son Colin, who in recent years has begun to make his own mark as an actor. The elder Hanks makes a pair of appearances as the disapproving father of a son who goes to work for a magician (John Malkovich). It’s a movie that says little, if anything, about the nature of institutional life. Which is a relief: not everything is. Even for a guy whose career has, perhaps unwittingly, rested on it.

Coming soon: a conclusion to this series on Hanks