American Dreams and Nightmares

Issue section: 

Review of 'The Terminal', director Steven Spielberg, 'The Alamo', director John Lee Hancock and 'Collateral', director Michael Mann

Most films from Steven Spielberg come served with a large portion of sentimentality. His new one, The Terminal, is no different. Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski who, when arriving at JFK airport, New York, finds out there has been a coup in his homeland of Krakozhia. He is declared technically stateless and told by the ambitious homeland security official that to him 'America is closed'. For the next few years he lives in the terminal unable to leave. The film's heart is in the right place - it is sympathetic to Navorski's plight as the unwanted alien. There are some really funny moments as well, but add some romance in the form of Catherine Zeta-Jones's ditzy air hostess, and things go downhill. Also, there is no sense of the paranoia that now grips the USA when it comes to foreign nationals and aeroplanes.

The incredible thing about this film is that it is based on an actual event. Merhan Karmi Nasseri was an Iranian national expelled for protesting against the Shah. In 1988 he was granted political asylum status by the UN but had his papers stolen en route to Britain. He was refused entry into the UK and ended up in the passenger lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport where he still lives today. Unfortunately in the real world it is not Steven Spielberg who controls the destiny of someone like Nasseri, rather it is politicians like our own hypocrite David Blunkett, so there may be no happy ending for our hero.

The Alamo, directed by John Lee Hancock, is a remake of the 1960 John Wayne film. Whereas the original was made in the context of the Cold War, the new version has its own post-9/11 ideology and seems to have answered Bush's call for Hollywood to make more movies that show how Americans deal with foreign threats. It says nothing new about the actual war that took place in 1836 when American settlers, led by General Sam Houston, seized the area known as Tejas from Mexico, which had just won independence from Spain. The director says the film gives the Mexican point of view. This doesn't seem to be what the Mexicans think, since it was booed when shown there. It isn't even a good film. It is disjointed, the actual massacre at the Alamo takes too long and, despite some authentic looking battle scenes, it adds up to nothing more than a boring version of a purely patriotic myth.

Finally, there is a wonderful new film from Michael Mann. His films are usually about contemporary America and always capture the tragic-epic proportions of that place. Collateral is a story set in LA. Vincent is a ruthless contract killer and has to kill five people in a single night. He ends up hijacking a taxi driven by Max to get around town. Vincent is cynical, seeing individuals as specks of dust who no one will miss if someone like him comes along and assassinates them - to him everybody is collateral.

This film is wonderful to look at, and its imagery of a city dark and vast, echoing with loneliness, seems to back up what Vincent believes. Mann concentrates on the relationship between the two protagonists as we see Max learning from Vincent's methods - in particular how to deal with his boss at the taxi rank. The film's climax is not just whether Vincent will be able to carry out his contract, but also whether Max can escape the pessimism of the killer he drives around. It's a tense atmospheric thriller that portrays an America far darker and more complex, and therefore more interesting, than either The Alamo or The Terminal.