‘Up In The Air’ – Film Review and Analysis

“The choices he has made haven’t caught up to him yet, but he is on the path he has chosen that while unorthodox to most leaves him satisfied and content with who he is.”

Ryan Bingham has chosen a different life path than most people he knows. Instead of staying in his hometown, reveling in the glories past of high school and the diner down the road, he wanted to leave his roots and his family for his true passion in life: being up in the air and striving for excellence as a motivational speaker. The choices he has made haven’t caught up to him yet, but he is on the path he has chosen that while unorthodox to most leaves him satisfied and content with who he is.

Bingham (played by George Clooney) is at a crossroads in middle age where he has forgone the responsibilities that are normally achieved by most people his age with a house and a picket fence, being married, and maybe having children. He has forgone all that for an industry on the rise sadly at the time the film is set in and for being out on the road and up in the air for 250+ days of the year. He advocates for a life in motion because if he is not moving, he is not actually living.

His work like his constant travel is an unorthodox industry where he works as a human resources consultant traveling both domestically and internationally to do the dirty work of firing or ‘letting go’ employees in person and providing them with transition packet(s) that the company that’s firing them is leaving them with to help them in the ‘transition’ period. It is a rough job that due to the 2008-2009 global recession has made his HR consultancy firm as needed as ever. The one industry at the time that is gaining jobs rather than losing jobs, Ryan finds himself at risk of having his life of work travel outsources to advancements in video technology (about ten years before Zoom and Skype became mainstream).

While Ryan Bingham is not at risk of getting laid off like so many other working Americans during the period of the Great Recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Bingham is at risk of losing his life of travel on the road due to firing people via telecommunications video instead. To make matters worse, his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is tasking him with having a new hire out of Yale University, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) shadow his in-person firings for a few months as the company, CTC, makes the transition to virtual consulting instead of letting those employees go in-person from now on.

That is not the only change that threatens to upend Ryan’s life choice as he has met a charming, attractive woman who has the same lifestyle as him and appears to see life as he does with less commitments and more choice. Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is the constantly traveling business woman for whom Ryan may have finally met his match. While they started out as a casual fling, Ryan begins to develop feelings for her as he ponders his uncertain future of life on the road as well as the fact that once he achieves his life goal of ten million airline miles accumulated may not have much to strive for.

Ryan and Natalie may not show it at first but the firings and the emotional weight of being responsible for upending people’s lives cause them stress, anxiety, and a desire to break free of their own pains in doing the job they have chosen. While Ryan is content with travel on the road, he hears from his estranged sister, Kara, that his other, younger sister, Julie is getting married. Ryan left home when he first could leave and never looked back, and his family still remembers that. He is the ‘black sheep’ of the family, known to pursue his own gratification while letting his relationships deteriorate over the years.

Having Alex as a love interest has reignited his desire to see his sisters again and to be there for the wedding in northern Wisconsin. Him and Alex are still a bit of a mystery to each other, but they enjoy each other’s company, and he invites her to join him as the +1 guest, not wanting to be the ‘guy alone at the bar’ watching all the couples enjoy a dance together. There are these moments of vulnerability interspersed through ‘Up in The Air’ that remind the audience that all these characters have their own flaws and shortcomings. They are not perfect people, and the film does not judge them outright but allows the audience to decide if they are admirable or detestable or a bit of both. What I love most is that the film director and writers allow us to decide if we agree with Ryan’s choices or if we would have chosen to go the other route in life that he has neglected.

Sometimes, it is never too late to choose a different path than the one that we have set out for ourselves. However, whether we can pull back from previous choices made and to get a fresh start on a new path, is one of the underlying themes of ‘Up in The Air.’ Ryan can try to start a real relationship with Alex, make amends with his sisters and be more present in their lives, and still achieve his 10-million-mile goal but life can get in the way so it’s possible he will not be as successful in salvaging both his relationships, his career goals, and his need for travel. Even if he thinks he can be successful at keeping everybody in his life happy, he may have to make sacrifices as in life, it can be nearly impossible to keep all options available to you.        

The priorities we make now while end up defining us far into the future and there may come a time where the sacrifices, we make in one area may lead to a lack of connection or attachment or fulfilment in another area. Throughout the film during Ryan’s motivational speeches, he talks about the ‘stuff’ in life weighing us down whether it’s our relationships, our possessions, and even our desires. He makes the point in the audience that ‘life can be better footloose’ and not as tied down to suffer from it. However, what the film makes clear is that when you find real happiness in a relationship, can you pivot to slowing down with that heavier backpack you carry around because you feel fulfilled to do so? Can Ryan make room for a real relationship with Alex or his sisters to give up life on the road so his backpack will be heavier, but he’ll still be happier as a result, and maybe that what’s he was missing all this time around?

While Ryan is a ‘road warrior’ and enjoys not being attached to anyone or anything, who will be there for him if he must stay at his scant one-bedroom apartment in Omaha or if he were to be fired from his job where he fires other people. The film brilliantly shows real people who’ve been through real loss in terms of their jobs and livelihoods, and how while it is almost impossible to get through it, they could not keep going on without their responsibility to their families or the love that their families show for them in those tough times. In life, it always helps to have a good support system or to have good people like family motivating you to get you through the tough times.

Ryan may be prepared for a life unattached now, but he may find as he gets older, that his choice to not have many or any attachments at all may lead to the loneliness and pain that then can come from facing life’s hurdles alone, especially when you don’t truly get to know the person because you are so busy traveling and can’t make time for them at all. As Ryan says to his sister Julie’s husband-to-be, Jim, on their wedding day to help him get over his ‘cold feet’ at getting married, “Life’s better with company.”

Anatomy of a Scene – ‘To Know Me Is To Fly With Me’

“He has found a job that allows him to be constantly on the road at a job he is good at without commitments or obligations that would keep him from being who he is.”

Some people are most comfortable on the ground, others down below beneath the sea. Ryan Bingham, however, is most comfortable up in the air. Ryan goes from city to city and from town to town racking up airline miles, staying in recognizable hotels, and sadly letting people go from jobs by helping them with the transition process to a new life. He does the dirty work, which can be quite tense and unforgiving. He does not do his job out of pleasure for helping companies fire people in-person but rather because he likes life on the road and is comfortable being in airports, rental cars, and hotels rather than in a cubicle or a factory day in and day out.

Without going into too much detail about the movie, ‘Up in The Air’, I’m going to focus on two scenes to encompass Ryan’s life on the road and how he should be known best. Ryan is single, not a family man, never been married, and does not go on at length about children because he does not have them. He is driven not by his family or his career per say but rather how his home is his backpack or suitcase and how if he stays still, he loses an essential part of who he is as a person. When other people brag about their kids’ latest success or their wife or husband’s latest accomplish, Ryan instead brags about his quest for ten million airline miles and how he has privileged status with his hotel rewards program.

While others would find Ryan’s lifestyle odd and unusual, he would consider their lifestyle to be the odd and unusual one. He has found a job that allows him to be constantly on the road at a job he is good at without commitments or obligations that would keep him from being who he is. While he enjoys being with people, he is also comfortable on his own and enjoys his own company. He believes that any other way to live would not be as satisfying and for what others dislike about traveling constantly, he relishes it. Ryan does not think anything, or anyone would derail him from continuing this lifestyle even after he reaches his ten million miles goal. If he were to stop, it may be only because he loses his job where he helps to fire people or if he met a woman who could live with his ‘unusual’ lifestyle.

“Fast Friends.”

As the scene ‘to know me is to fly with me’ demonstrates, Ryan’s friendships are often self-serving because he is often on the road and can’t have true friendships but rather ‘fast friendships.’ He is a new kind of person and must go along with his constantly shifting itinerary. Ryan is personable and likes to meet new people such as a man next to him in business class and can relate to another gentleman who likes to be on the road.

Ryan has traveled so much that he knows how to approach a conversation with a stranger sitting next to him. They can discuss family matters, where to go for good food in a specific city, and even about the dreams of the person he is sitting with. He may not have deep friendships but is personable and friendly enough to make a quick connection like he would a flight to a new city without skipping a beat.

Ryan can get the business card, say goodbye forever, and is busy enough to move on without feeling a sense of loss or sadness about not seeing that gentleman he had met and formed a connection with for a few hours just before. As Ryan indicates in his narration, he lives by ‘the margins of his itinerary’ and is committed to his schedule without missing a beat or feeling like he is out of step. Even where there is turbulence, bad airline food, or onerous airline security procedures, Ryan Bingham takes it all in stride. He is not dismayed by any of the various annoyances that plague the travel industry. It is where he feels most at home and is probably the only kind of life he would feel at home with.

“I am home.”

Another scene that compliments the ‘to know me is to fly with me’ deleted scene from the movie is where Ryan’s travel process is shown from beginning to end. Different from ‘fast friends’, Ryan’s job encompasses him helping companies too afraid to fire their employees directly by having him fly around the country and perhaps internationally to do it himself. He says that it’s easy to do it since “he’ll never see them again” but it does not seem like he takes pleasure in it and just uses it to travel for a living. Instead of ‘fast friends’, he may be making ‘fast discontents’ as they blame him for everything bad happening to them at that job even though it’s not his decision to fire them but their boss’s. While Ryan never sees them again like the friendly businessman sitting next to him on the plane, those brief moments of sad or happy coincidence just fall by the wayside when he focuses on his true passion of making the travel lifestyle of his as seamless as possible.

From organizing his TravelPro suitcase easily stored in the overhead bin in any normal jumbo-sized jet plane to making sure his ties and shirts are neatly folded to fit in his suitcase, Ryan fits the bill as a true traveler who knows what to do. “This is where I live.” Ryan says as he drops off his rental car, which he probably rented for free by using his compiled credit card miles. He avoids long check-in lines by having ‘priority access’ with his airline points allowing him such perks as a personalized greeting from one of the airline staff, which is part of sitting in the ’first class’ section of the airplane. While ‘Up in The Air’ was made before TSA Precheck and Global Entry came out as options to avoid long security and U.S. customs lines, you can believe Ryan would have been able to sign up for those perks as well for free due to his accrued airline miles.

From greeting the smiling airline staffer who is aware of his ‘privileged’ status to making it through the TSA check like it is second nature, Ryan is suited up to make himself presentable for the flight but does not forget to wear dress slip on shoes to make the onerous security check process a little bit faster and little less annoying. He gets out the two bins to put through the x-ray machine for his luggage, expertly has his laptop at the top of his carry-on bag ready to be placed in one of the bins and has the slip-on shoes out of his face so fast he does not struggle with getting them back on later. He even folds his suit jacket expertly in half, so it does not wrinkle at all as it goes through the machine and holds his boarding pass out in front of him through the metal detector, so the TSA security agents know he does not have “anything left in his pockets.”

“All the things you probably hate about traveling: the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispenses, the cheap sushi…are warm reminders that I am home. While most people would hate to have a job that makes them the face people have to see when they get fired or would not enjoy constantly being on the road most of the year, if not all of it, Ryan Bingham in ‘Up in The Air’ truly relishes it and would not have it any other way. There are Ryan Bingham’s in the world out there and they live a lifestyle that while unconventional and difficult, is a unique one that deserves some respect as it isn’t easily pulled off especially since as he said, the stuff most people hate about traveling, he really loves, and that is worth admiring about him.

‘A Serious Man’ – Film Review and Analysis

“Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.”

Man can be tested again and again but how exactly he deals with life’s challenges and his overall resolve and mettle will be seen as the measure of his true character. If I had to sum up the excellent movie, ‘A Serious Man’, it is a dark comedy but also a human drama regarding fate, fortune, and whether the role of a higher being can ultimately affect our destiny. Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.

‘A Serious Man’ (2009) is an excellent modern-day film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who I would imagine have had a similar childhood to the lead character of Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), which is the inspiration for this adapted screenplay, which is brilliantly written and relatable even if you’re not of the Jewish faith. The Coen Brothers both were raised and grew up as Jews in 1960s – 1970s Minnesota near the Twin Cities. It is likely they had to deal with being religious minorities in a mostly goyim (non-Jewish state) as well as with the growing counterculture and changing attitudes towards parental authority, sex, style, personal responsibility, and other societal upheavals including regarding race, gender, and politics.

While the Coen Brothers have had successful movies before and have won Academy Awards for movies such as ‘No Country for Old Men’, this film, ‘A Serious Man’ is quite unique given that it combines both comedic and dramatic elements, usually in the same scene. Overall, it triumphs as a film in doing that and is also laugh-out-loud funny and additionally heart-wrenchingly sad and melancholic. This film was universally praised and as I re-watched the film again after many years, it stands as one of the best films of the 2000s. Not only is the screenplay and writing engaging and insightful but also the acting is top notch thanks to the hard work of Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, among others in the film.

When you consider the main themes of ‘A Serious Man’, you think of several of them that deal with human nature such as upholding your morality under stress, taking care of those closest to you, dealing with adversity and unforeseen hurdles, and how to deal with questions of faith when you feel that you have been abandoned. As I mentioned earlier on, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to be taken seriously given the way he has lived his life and he has strived to do so with his academic and professional accomplishments. Sadly though, he is not only not able to get as much success with his professional pursuits, but he also struggles to hold his personal life together.

Despite how ‘serious’ of a man Larry thinks he is, those in his life can’t help but not take him seriously or choose not to. Instead of reassessing his actions and trying to make some behavioral changes or work on any personal defects he may has in addressing his challenges, Larry instead challenges his faith in God and wonders if the Rabbis of his synagogue will have the answers to the questions God has challenged Larry with.

As the film starts out, Larry appears to be relatively successful as a Physics professor waiting to be tenured. He teaches his classes, does research (albeit has not published anything), and enjoys the work he does. Larry is married with two teenage children and a modest house in the suburbs. Him and his family want for nothing, and it looks like he has everything you could want out of life on the surface.

As appearances can be deceiving, the film breaks down how one man’s life can be turned upside down and inferring what events beyond Larry’s control could have tipped his fortune to be negative, as in a curse, years or centuries ago. It is a series of events that tend to turn Larry’s life upside down even when he has not done anything wrong. A Korean student in his Physics class tries to bribe Larry to get a better grade and leaves before Larry can return the money and punish him for the illegal act.

Larry also comes home to his wife, Judith, who asks him for a divorce and for a ‘gett’ or permission to do so she can remarry within the faith to Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) who everyone takes seriously as a ‘Serious Man’ except for Larry. Larry is envious of Sy to some degree and feels like he has everything given to him whereas Larry has had to work hard for his success. Suddenly, ‘the domino effect’ of one negative event after another happens including Larry losing his home, access to his bank accounts, his marriage, and even his relationship to his teenage children become estranged.

This string of unfortunate events has Larry looking to cast judgment on God and questioning his faith in Judaism. Larry goes to three different rabbis whose advice and counsel does not help him any further. He cannot relate to what they tell them especially as the eldest, he considers to be too unavailable or unwilling and the youngest rabbi being too inexperienced or immature, who end up wasting his time. The 2nd and wisest rabbi give him the advice through an allegory, that while fictional, has a good message to it ends up helping Larry the most that God can only provide the questions, but you must find your own answers. The best way the 2nd rabbi implies to Larry is that he must “help himself by helping others.”

Essentially, Larry Gopnik must look beyond his own pain and selfish wants and look to control what he can and do what he can to get his life back on track. Larry can also do ‘mitzvahs’ especially regarding his own family. Larry’s younger brother, Arthur, is homeless and not mentally sound so Larry tries to get him on his feet but struggles to find the money or the resources to help his brother with his many troubles. He still attempts to maintain better relations with his kids, his soon to be ex-wife, and with his work colleagues. Without spoiling the rest of the movie, Larry understands that he must look to help others rather than looking to God to intervene. While ‘The Boss’ is present to give questions, the answers must come from within.

How Larry stands up to challenges and adversity is like the Torah’s stories about men like Job and Jonah who had their lives thrown into upheaval but were able to get over the anguish by holding true to their faith in God but looking inwards in their own strength, knowledge, and belief in morality and good will to make it through on the other side better than before. Life throws challenges at us every day and how we react to them and try to get through it with our God-given wisdom, kindness, compassion, patience, and reasoning will decide how far we can proceed in life to get back to being successful. Fortune is not everlasting, and faith will not provide good fortune. What can provide good fortune is to do your best, help yourself and others around you, and look to your own inner beliefs and values to guide you through the tough times.

‘A Serious Man’ is about a man who considers himself to be serious but has to struggle for others to call him ‘serious.’ In an effort to be taken seriously, Larry does end up struggling to fulfill the other important parts of his life that require his attention. He can forget to be loving and caring to his wife, attentive and helpful to his children, and more involved within the Jewish community including at his son’s Hebrew school. Larry is not a bad man but the cracks in his life cause some bad events to happen including events for which there is no logical explanation. Larry does his best to be a good man and although he is flawed, bad things happen out of nowhere to him.

The test throughout this excellent film is how do you claw back from adversity and try to give yourself the best shot at having good things happen in your life. Even if your family may appear to be cursed or have a string of bad fortune dating back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, how do you turn it around so your son or your daughter don’t deal with the same tragedies and setbacks? There are no easy answers in ‘A Serious Man’ but the Coen Brothers make it clear that it is not wise to look to God to solve the problems for you or provide the answers.

The central message of this film is not just for Jews but for all people. God may have provided life’s questions for you to answer but it’s up to you alone to answer them throughout your life. While you may lose faith in hose providing counsel or advice or in the religion itself, the film makes clear that you have to believe in yourself, to help yourself pull through the pain and sorrow, and to help other people, especially the family and friends closest to you, who are going through tough times as well, whose aid and assistance you can provide may be able to help you get to the right direction in life again and to lead you to a better place than you were before.

Anatomy of a Scene – ‘A Small Measure of Peace’

“To be at a certain place or with a certain person for the rest of your days and to be at ease with your decision, that contentedness is to have found the ‘small measure of peace’ that we can spend our entire lives trying to capture but only a few ever truly find.”

The Last Samurai (2003) – ‘A Small Measure of Peace’

There is a distinct moment in our lives when we realize that the fight is done, and the work is over. It is a pleasant realization that all you can do has been done and that you must take the rest of our days to welcome ‘a small measure of peace’ in one’s life, which is not easily found or embraced. To be at a certain place or with a certain person for the rest of your days and to be at ease with your decision, that contentedness is to have found the ‘small measure of peace’ that we can spend our entire lives trying to capture but only a few ever truly find.

It does not mean that the work is over but rather that the trials of our life have come to pass and that what we have fought for, bled for, or even cried for have now come to pass. While there may no final resting place until we depart from this Earth, finding a small patch of land to call your own, a garden or a farm for you to mend, and a woman (or a man) for whom you can love freely, that is the ‘small measure of peace’ to strive for obtaining, especially in one’s later years.

One man who was able to find his small measure of peace was Nathan Algren, who in ‘The Last Samurai’ can redeem himself, end his alcoholism, and fight with courage and honor in preserving the memory of the Samurai. While the Samurai age came to an end, Industrial Japan, and its Emperor, partly thanks to Nathan leading the Samurai into battle, to preserve their dignity and honor, were able to leave their mark on Japanese culture and history. While he may have been the last Samurai and a foreigner in Japan, he was able to rally them to a glorious end for which Imperial Japan would never forget.

“Tell me how he died.” “I will tell you…how he lived.” Even after losing his close confidant and friend in the final battle, the samurai Katsumoto, who took Nathan under his wing, told him the ways of the Samurai, and introduced him to the woman he came to love, Nathan wanted to preserve his memory to the young Emperor and to let the Imperial Japanese court know how special the age of the Samurai was and how it should not be forgotten.

“Nations, like Men, it is sometimes said…have their own destiny.” While nations choose to look forward to the future, they must also embrace the past to preserve their identity. What was once part of their culture may go away but it can leave an imprint and be remembered by generations to come. Japan’s destiny lies in looking to the future but always remembering the past, such as the age of the Samurai. Nathan Algren, the American who learned the ways of the Samurai, was able to throw off his own turbulent past as a Civil War captain by learning to fight with dignity and honor as a Samurai in a cause bigger than his own ego.

“As for the American Captain, no one knows what became of him…some say…he died of his wounds…others…that he returned to his own country…But I like to think…he may have, at last, found some small measure of peace…that we all seek…and few of us ever find.”

After trying to get himself killed or trying to deliberately drink himself to death, being able to survive as the last Samurai and tell of their traditions to keep the memory of Katsumoto alive, Nathan Algren was able to finally let go of the demons of his past and find the small measure of peace in a small Japanese village where he was first introduced to the only woman he truly loved. In her, Nathan finds a reason to stay alive, to make a life away from war and suffering, to be part of the woman’s village again, and perhaps start anew where he could be at peace with the past and have a pleasant future that is filled with love and peace.

As Nathan gathers his horse and rides down to Taka’s village, he is a man who is content, who is at peace, and who knows what exactly he must do for the rest of his living days. Taka and Nathan have a history together over the course of the film but by the ending scene, she is happy to see him alive and well again. Her beauty, grace, and femininity shine through as she gazes at Nathan, giving him a heartfelt smile, happy to see him in her presence again.

One look at each other says it all and they have been through so much in their time together that just to be making eye contact again is enough to fill up both of their hearts with joy. Like how Japan was willing to move forward to a new age while remembering the last Samurai, Nathan is also ready to be at peace with his past while looking to the future with Taka.

“…It’s Just A Business” – Anatomy of A Scene

“As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.”

“America is not a country, it’s just a business.”

‘Killing Them Softly’ is a 2012 movie that flew under the radar at the time of its release. It may seem on the surface as a movie about the mob regarding unpaid debts, illegal gambling rings, and retribution for those caught in the crossfire, but what makes this movie different is its allegory laid out in the film regarding its relation to the financial system. As the mafia tries to prop up its system of illegal gambling rings and extortion rackets by using different hired hitmen, there are radio and TV clips highlighting the role of different politicians trying to prop up the financial system in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To keep the system functioning, drastic measures are taken.

As the U.S. economy suffers, illegal activities flourish and there are those people who get caught up in resorting to crime to keep their head above water. When the illegal system malfunctions such as a Mafia protected card game gets robbed by criminals outside the system, Jackie Cogan (played by Brad Pitt) is called upon as an enforcer hired to restore order to prevent the local criminal economy to collapse.

When any economy, illicit or legal, are ripped from its foundations, there will be enforcers or politicians who will need to clean up the mess left behind. While the allegory is not spelled out in the film, As Jackie is left to clean up the mess of the robbed card game by getting revenge on the small-time criminals who wanted to disrupt the system, many scenes highlight how the U.S. economy needs to be bailed out due to the irresponsible actions of the bankers and financial traders who got the country into this mess. While it may not be the most pertinent allegory, Jackie Cogan, is there to maintain order in their own local illegal gambling racket, similar to how leading politicians in government are called upon to maintain order when the national financial system is ready to crash.

Jackie Cogan is on his own throughout the movie and must rely upon himself to fix the mess left behind from the mob-protected robbed card game’s aftermath. He knows other mob enforcers who could help but they’re jaded, bitter, or too worse for wear having done Jackie’s job multiple times before to keep the mafia afloat. Above all else, Jackie is in it for himself to get paid and survive in an economic situation that is affecting everyone, criminal or civilian.

U.S. political leaders, similarly, were asked to intervene on behalf of the government, to step in to save a system that was being abused by financial firms, but also individuals, who made irresponsible decisions, and even illegal ones, which caused the national economy to crash. To prevent the system from collapsing, former Presidents, George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama had to step in to save the economy even though the system itself was at fault.

In the wake of the financial crisis that still resulted from the bad decisions and greedy actions of its players, when there’s a resulting increase in unemployment and poverty as the film depicts along with the collapse of some communities, some people will inevitably turn to criminal and illegal activities including gambling, extortion, and drug dealing. As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.

Without spoiling too much of the film, the ending scene takes place with Jackie and the mafia’s head accountant meeting at a bar to discuss his payment rendered for being an enforcer to keep the Mob card game running afloat after the perpetrators were punished for robbing it. Jackie, like the head Mafia accountant, are using each other for the money and stability of their own enterprises. Jackie Cogan is in it for himself as other enforcers were not able to do what he does, and he wants to be rewarded for it.

The Mob accountant is looking to make sure his illegal enterprise stays afloat without paying more than he needs to. In this scene, Jackie raises the rate of how much he charges for committing the hits on the people who robbed the card game due to the ‘recession.’ The mob accountant counters by saying that what they would him are the ‘recession’ prices and that he’s getting what another enforcer who couldn’t do the job would normally get.

“You know this business is a business of relationships.” The accountant tells Jackie that they want to keep the relationship with him going since every other enforcer is unavailable so he should not ask for more money given he might need to help them again. Jackie isn’t fooled by this plea to continue their ‘working’ relationship because at the end of the day, it’s about getting paid by them and they could not care less what happens to the enforcers who clean up the mob’s mess.

The accountant is listening to the 2008 election night acceptance speech by then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama imploring Americans to see each other as ‘one people’ and ‘out of many, we are one.’ Jackie doesn’t buy it given the circumstances for which he lives out his life in America. The accountant labels him as a ‘cynical’ person but he has reason to be as ends up cleaning up messes violently and criminally to keep the gravy train for others rolling.

Jackie sees even one of the founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson’ as a hypocrite because while he wanted freedom and liberty for all, he still owned slaves and wasn’t actually fighting for the ideals he espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Despite being known as an ‘American Saint’, Jackie believes Jefferson was out for himself and his own interests and that there are no unifying ideals that bind the country together besides the need for ‘money.’

“Don’t make me laugh…I’m living in America…and in America, you’re on your own. America is not a country, it’s just a business.” Jackie Cogan, after what he goes through in the film, is looking to get paid and survive at the end of the day. He is corrupted and evil but justifies his actions by telling himself and the audience that he’s on his own like many other people were in the financial crisis and must take this blood money from the mafia to make it in America.

When Jackie Cogan hears American politicians say that “we’re all in this together”, “we are one community, one nation”, he believes that no one is looking out for him, not even his mafia employers, and must fight for every dollar he can have because he would not survive otherwise. ‘Killing Them Softly’ is not just about a low-level mafia enforcer keeping a mob-run gambling ring going after doing contract kills on three people who robbed one of the games.

Throughout the film, whether its news clips, radio segments, or the desperate actions of its characters, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is primarily about the larger and looming allegory for the larger failures of the economic system who could not protect many of its citizens from financial ruin in the wake of the 2008 crisis. The effects of this past crisis reverberates even to this day, whose mess created such dire circumstances for people across the country to fend for themselves. While the small-town mafia and Wall Street can get propped up by those who intervene to save it, the film makes it a key point in this ending scene that for too many Americans, they believe they have been left behind by a financial system that does not work for them and for a culture where it’s “winner take all” and if you get left behind, nobody is going to be there to bail you out.

Anatomy of a Scene -‘The Life We Chose; The Life We Lead’

“One scene that conveys that ‘movie magic’ to me is a scene of verbal confrontation between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks in ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002).”

Movie magic is an illustrious concept to grasp but it often happens when you have those special moments to show off the full acting prowess by men or women at the top of their game. Moments like these are increasingly hard to come by when most movies today focus on non-stop action, horror, or thrills without taking the time to stop and let actors perform their best to act like real people in real situations. One scene that conveys that ‘movie magic’ to me is a scene of verbal confrontation between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks in ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002).

In another article, I wrote about my thoughts on this beloved movie of mine now almost twenty years of age but still ripe for a rewatch for me whenever the weather gets colder, and the sun goes down earlier. ‘Road to Perdition’ is a serious film with serious actors. This particular scene titled, ‘The Life We Chose, The Life We Lead’ lets these two juggernauts of Hollywood use their acting skillset to the fullest without any action distractions or cheap thrills.

Director Sam Mendes and the late and great Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall are able to use the muted lighting, the wide lens camera to help focus all of the audience’s attention on Hanks’ and Newman’ characters at a pivotal scene in the film. A good movie lets the attention focus in on the actors and heightens the importance of the dialogue so that nothing is missed, and every word, facial expression, and bodily movement means something to the plot. I fully appreciate this scene because it strips down the movie to its bare bones and puts its faith in the leading actors who make it a great film to begin with. When you are surrounded by great talent, you don’t obscure their abilities but rather let them shine in their roles for all viewers to enjoy.

Without spoiling too much ahead for readers who have not seen the movie, this ‘Road to Perdition’ scene focuses on the evolving conflict between Irish American Mob boss John Rooney (played by Paul Newman) and his loyal enforcer turned outcast named Michael Sullivan (played by Tom Hanks). They are at odds over the murder of his wife, Annie, and his youngest son, Peter, early in the film by John’s only son, Connor, who is now on the run from Michael but whom is being protected by John and his mob associates throughout the Midwest U.S. Both John and Michael find themselves protecting their own sons from each other while mourning the loss of their own special ‘father-son’-like relationship.

The old English idiom of ‘blood being thicker than water’ looms heavily in this dark scene as both men must sacrifice their friendship, their employer-employee relationship, and perhaps their own kin for these acts of bloodshed to stop. In this movie, the Road to Perdition or ‘hell’ is paved with the bloody sins that each man has committed to save the innocence of those they still love.

‘Road to Perdition’ – Confrontation (Scene)

The metaphors of the scene itself especially at the beginning speak for themselves. John and Michael meet secretly in the catacombs of a Church basement where their talk of murder and betrayal is almost drowned out by the church choir practicing above them as they try to avoid more bloodshed. Similar to angels singing from heaven, the men are in ‘hell’ as they confess to each other how as ‘murderers’, they’ll never see ‘heaven’ like the dark catacombs they find themselves meeting in away from the light of the church or of the day.

In a last-ditch attempt to save John from certain death at Michael’s hand, Michael Sullivan tries to convince John that his own son is betraying him. Michael alleges that Connor is stealing from John and has been opening bank accounts while taking money from the men that Michael has killed on Connor and John’s orders. As an enforcer for the Irish mafia, Michael thought he was helping John keep control over his mob empire, but he instead was lining Connor’s pockets with blood money.

Amazingly, John is aware of all this even before Michael gives him the account statements from all the money Connor has been compiling over the years. With remorse and regret in his eyes, John Rooney admits to Michael that he tried to protect Michael from the fact that he was working for Connor and not himself but that he still loved him ‘like’ a son. The key word in their discussion is ‘like’ because Michael is not John’s son, but Connor is. Both men must do what’s in their son’s best interests even though they don’t always see eye to eye with their own sons.

John gave Michael and his wife Annie a home, consistent income, and the ability to live a middle-class American life and in return, Michael killed on John’s behalf and tried to protect his family from the gritty truth of being an enforcer. Michael lost Annie and Peter because of his murderous past but it is not too late at this point in the movie for his only remaining son, Michael Jr. Connor knows Michael Jr. is aware of the murders of his mom and brother along with Finn McGovern, a man who Connor was stealing from so Connor wants Michael Jr. dead. Michael Sr. and his son are on the run from Connor, but they know that once John Rooney is dead, the rest of the mob will give up Connor leaving Michael Sr. in a devastating position of playing ‘cat and mouse’ with his former boss.

Michael Sr. tries to reason with John to give up Connor to spare John’s life. John won’t allow Michael to kill Connor as revenge while he’s alive even though Connor murdered Annie and Peter previously. John can’t let Michael Sr. keep using his losses as a justify for another murder, which would be his son, Connor. “There are only murderers in this room. Michael! Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead…and there is only one guarantee: None of us will see heaven!”

“Michael (Jr.) could.”, Michael Sr. hopefully responds. With his mob ties gone, his family torn apart, and his livelihood evaporated, Michael Sr. has one mission left in life and that is to protect his son’s innocence. Michael Jr. is a good teenage boy shielded from his father’s history of violence. To make Michael Sr.’s life worth living, it is worth protecting his son from Connor, his father John, and the rest of the Chicago mafia. Even if it means Michael Sr. dying to protect his son, it would be worth it to Michael to protect his son’s innocence and prevent him from becoming a murderer. At this point in the film, Michael Sr. knows just what to do and that involves killing John, who will keep hunting the two of them to protect Connor, his son.

To have Michael Jr. see heaven, to not go down the same path as his father, to live a full, happy life away from the violence and bloodshed he has already bore witness to, it is up to Michael Sr. to do what he must to protect his son from John’s son. The choir stops singing at the end of the scene signaling that Michael Sr. must decide about what to do once and for all about John.

            “And if I go?”, Michael Sr. asks of John if he lets Connor and John live.

            “Then I will mourn the son I lost…”, John tells him and walks away, with tears glistening in his eyes.

Michael Sr. finds himself with an impossible decision that his life of murder has led him to. Either he lets John, his boss, go free and let Connor escape as well, or he must stay and kill John for not giving up Connor to him. Either John will mourn ‘the son he lost’ meaning Michael Sr. or Michael Sr. will end up mourning the death of John, the ‘father he loved’ even though they are not related by blood.

Throughout this pivotal scene in the film, you can see the many years of friendship, love, and trust that each man shared with one another. Despite them leading a notorious life of crime and violence, they know they have done wrong and will eventually pay for it in this life or the next. The cinematography even indicates from this scene that they may end up perhaps in a ‘hell’ like in the catacombs of a dungeon that they find themselves in now with no exit in sight and away from the singing angels above them in heaven.

However, Michael Sr. knows his son must not lead the same life of misfortunate, pain, and regret that he has. While Connor, John’s son, is now a murderer like John is, Michael Sr. resolves to sacrifice his own innocence to protect that of his own son before it’s too late. In the process, he must continue to avenge the deaths of his wife and other son to protect the only precious thing he has left in this world. Even though he loves John like a ‘father’, he is the only man standing in the way of killing the man who murdered his family and preventing that same man from killing his only son left.

Both men walk away knowing that one of them is going to die after this meeting. The question remains: which man will it be and who is willing to sacrifice himself first to save their own son in the process? This scene of ‘Road to Perdition’ is one of the best in the film because it allows two great men of acting stature do what they do best with just dialogue, emotion, and having amazing chemistry between them even in a fictional world. It’s why I believe this scene and this movie is one of the great films of the 21st century and to which I will keep returning to watch in the future. When acting professors want to show a great scene of pure dialogue, I hope they choose to show their students this one because it will long live on in pure film lore and reverence.

A Premonition from Wall-E

“You cannot argue against the fact that the creators of Wall-E were trying to warn the adults in the audience that this vision for humanity is a lot closer to reality than we would like to imagine.”

The beauty of Pixar movies is that they are not only for children to enjoy but adults as well. Many Pixar movies from Toy Story to Finding Nemo to The Incredibles carry important lessons regarding how to be caring, how to look out for one another, and how to stand up to injustice. Children enjoy the characters and the visuals while adults enjoy the lessons behind the main storyline. We understand how it can be painful to give up childhood toys in ‘Toy Story’, we understand the value of a new friendship earned as in ‘Finding Nemo’, and we deeply get the humdrum of the 9 to 5 day job that’s unfulfilling, but you need the money to survive or to feed a family as in ‘The Incredibles.’

The most powerful example of Pixar bringing adult anxiety and familiarity to life would be in its central ‘premonition’ in their hit film, Wall-E. What the movie ‘Wall-E’, released back in 2008, did was essentially predict where we are heading in 2021 potentially and where we could be by mid-century even though the movie is set in another eight centuries in the 2900s. The central ‘premonition’ or prediction that the film Wall-E makes is about the state of our beloved Planet Earth in the far future although that future in 2021 seems a lot closer to our collective reality than it was even thought of back in 2008. In the Pixar film, the Earth has become a garbage-strewn, hopelessly polluted planet with corporate greed, blatant consumerism, and environmental collapse being the norm rather than the exception. On top of all that, there are robots who do 99% of the labor that humans used to do.

In a particular scene that has stuck with me over the past decade is the sight of exceedingly overweight people in electric motor-scooters being hypnotized by their screens, totally oblivious to the environmental damage and neon advertising signs now in their periphery. In this bleak vision of the future, humans have let themselves go while robots have picked up the slack. Robots steer the ships through space and like Wall-E, they are forced to find a planet for recolonization that can suit humans now that the Earth has become an open-air garbage dump. Poor Wall-E.

Although you could say that this vision is a bit nonsensical in that everyone on Earth has become hopelessly dependent on robots, screens, and consumer goods to make it through the day, you cannot argue against the fact that the creators of Wall-E were trying to warn the adults in the audience that this vision for humanity is a lot closer to reality than we would like to imagine. 

While the film does not mention how did the Earth get so polluted where it’s become inundated with garbage everywhere or how did humans get so overweight, you can tell the writers were using a possible worst outcome scenario if we don’t try to look after ourselves better and to look after the planet that we love. ‘Wall-E’ takes the dystopian vision of the future to the extreme, but I would say that they are trying to take us to the worst-case scenario to make it clear how bad things could still get if we don’t start cleaning up our own act.

In 2021, who could argue with the fact that there are some sadly overweight people who cannot get around without motorized scooters, the fact that there are certain people who interact more with screens than other human beings, and that the fact that there are certain areas of the planet that have ceased to be livable because they are indeed open-air garbage dumps. The brilliance of a premonition is that it is essentially one vision of the future, and it does not necessarily mean that it will come true. This premonition of the movie Wall-E is not just a dystopian vision but a warning to humanity. Even back in 2008, we were warned that if we don’t start taking care of ourselves and the planet, life as we know it in the future will be worse. To those of you reading this article who would say, “It’s just a Pixar movie and is just fiction! Why should we take a fictional Pixar movie seriously?”

To that critique, I would say that there is often truth found in fiction and just because it’s not a true story and is an animated movie does not mean we should not take the film’s central message seriously. If you see the entire film, the average viewer should realize the main message of Wall-E is to always take responsibility for one’s actions because if one person doesn’t in terms of neglecting their health, their lack of care for others and the planet, and to obsessed with the latest technology, that one person’s behavior causes ripples throughout society causing life for everyone to get progressively worse.

The first part of the premonition where we can change our actions so that this warning does not come true is to stay active, eat healthy, and exercise. To end up like a person who is carried around on a motor scooter and can’t even walk around or push buttons anymore is no good way to go through life. Many people today live sedentary lifestyles and are less physically engaged than previous generations. Each person really must work at it to stay physically active if their work or lifestyle does not encourage it. Hopefully, Wall-E encourages more people to take the initiative to take their health seriously because being tied to technology, to consumer goods, and to the latest food fad can end up causing this part of the premonition to become a reality for more and more individuals.

The second part of the premonition where we can change our actions to stop this premonition is to lessen our addiction to technology. Screens are inevitably part of our present and our future, but we must continue to monitor our screen usage, encourage reading and other activities that are not done on screens, and to be able to take a day or more away from screens from time to time. In Wall-E, the people being carted around were staring at their screens continuously like zombies without being aware of the outside world. They didn’t even pay attention to Wall-E when he zips on by and he’s a living robot! I’m sure each of you reading this article has your own story of seeing someone on their phone as they walk across the street not aware of cars driving by or of someone else driving a car and staring at their phone screen rather than paying attention to what’s ahead of them on the road. Technology can help our lives out in many ways, but it is addictive, it is invasive, and it also can cause us to make deadly mistakes. Wall-E clearly warned us back in 2008 about the setbacks of being addicted to our screens.

The last part of the premonition that is most worrisome not just for individuals or for society but for the entire planet. Rampant pollution, poor air quality, lack of trees and vegetation are the main planetary problems highlighted by Wall-E. While the movie doesn’t cover how Earth became uninhabitable, it lays the blame squarely on human beings and our lack of care for the environment. The planet as depicted is filled with garbage, essentially having become an open-air landfill. Because of the Earth being ruined, Robots have must help humans find a new home but there is an underlying message there that how can we not ruin another planet when the Earth was not taken care of? When you can no longer breathe the air or drink the water, what good would a new planet do if the same mistakes are to be made? The environmental impact we are having on our planet has been known for decades and it was made known to the audience in Wall-E back in 2008 but it’s now getting late into 2021 and sadly, it seems as if environmental damage and climate change is getting worse, having greater impacts, and causing us to look more seriously at the fact that the planet might not be habitable for future generations to come.

When you look at Wall-E, you see an animated robot who is both goofy yet cares enough in trying to save Earth, which is seemingly past the point of no return in the movie. I hope we never get to the point in the far future when robots care more about the planet than we do to save it. Wall-E’s central premonition has come true in some aspects of life, but we do still have enough to change ourselves, our society, and our planet so that the premonition does not become a reality. There is indeed truth in fiction and Wall-E is an excellent film that shows us how if we don’t pay attention to the warnings laid out before us, we will make the same mistakes as the human characters do in Wall-E.

Thoughts on ‘Roadrunner’

“If there’s any word in the English language that would sum up the life of Anthony Bourdain, a ‘Roadrunner’ would be quite fitting to remember the man by.”

If there’s any word in the English language that would sum up the life of Anthony Bourdain, a ‘Roadrunner’ would be quite fitting to remember the man by. He was also a husband, father, friend, chef, writer, television host, and a cultural ambassador who made the world his oyster after many years as a cook in hot, windowless, stressful New York City kitchens. For some people, travel is a birthright that they have from a young age but for Anthony Bourdain, it was an unexpected gift at middle age after writing the excellent ‘Kitchen Confidential’ book highlighting his years in the underbelly of those same kitchens, which became a New York Times bestseller, and helped lead him into fame, stardom, and notoriety.

Bourdain’s life would never be the same as he was offered other book deals, his first television contract for the show, ‘A Cook’s Tour’, and started to be recognized around the world from Tokyo to Los Angeles. While his life as a newly minted TV host traveling worldwide, tasting different cuisines, meeting different peoples, he opened the world to those of us who only knew what they had read, learned about in school, or heard from others. Those of us who watched his shows learned about the world through the medium of television, but it was Anthony’s narration, his willingness to listen and empathize with whom he shared a meal that made him stand out from others in the travel show business. Bourdain never sugarcoated things and didn’t mince words about what he saw in his travels especially as the focus became less on food and more on culture, politics, and the trajectory of humanity itself. All this time though, watching his shows and reading his books, we knew more about the man’s reflections on the world and then how the world reflected on him.

The shock of his loss still hurts those who were fans of his works over three years later, I included, among the millions of people who were touched by his words, his spirit, and his lust for life. It is hard even now to reconcile the fact that the man who appeared to have had it all still suffered and that there was no outreach, gesture, or love shown that could have prevented his tragic suicide. Feelings of anger, disbelief, regret, and sadness come to mind when you think of how anyone, especially Anthony Bourdain, could decide to let go of life itself especially when it had enveloped him in such a warm embrace especially after his 2nd life of fame, success, and travel had gone on for almost two decades.

What ‘Roadrunner’, the film documentary on Anthony Bourdain’s life tries to answer is not the ‘why?’ of his death but the ‘how?’ of his illustrious life and how it changed, evolved, shifted, swinged on its ups and downs, which the documentary is successful at achieving. Rather than the director, Morgan Neville, attempt to get all of the answers on an unknowable concept such as what makes a person decide to take their own life, which left his friends, family, and fans devastated and unable to make sense of it either, the ‘Roadrunner’ documentary looks at how his life was, which people changed Anthony for better or worse, how he changed as a person, and how did travel affect him over almost 18 years. As a fan of Anthony’s written and television work, you learn a lot about the world through him, but I never got a full sense of who the man was as a person and I’m sure others can relate to this feeling.

Although he gave his all in his craft and in his vision, he rarely liked to be the center of attention in any room and was a shy, slightly self-deprecating, yet also a kind and generous man that would give more to others than would receive himself in return, and who never seemed fully quite comfortable with the fame, success, and notoriety his works produced. Those who remember him in the documentary talk about how he would always reach out to them to see how they are doing and to be a real people-pleaser but not ask for much in return or would find it difficult to confide in others with problems that may have been affecting him, personal or otherwise. While the film does a great job of capturing what it was like for Bourdain as he went from a line cook to a chef to an author to a television host to a cultural icon, we don’t really get to see much about his personal life beyond bits and snippets of details.

The viewer knows Bourdain came from a stable childhood, summers spent in France, loving parents, and a younger brother who he got along with well. However, you can sense from the documentary that he never grasped what most people would want from a ‘normal life.’ Bourdain was a creative soul who was curious by nature, inquisitive, had a taste for linguistics, and had a big imagination given his literary and musical tastes. He was not a man as Mark Twain would rail against as “vegetating in one corner of the planet” for their whole lives. Once he had the opportunity to do so financially and professionally, he seized it and took full advantage of the gifts that he had been given from a young age.

What was missing from the documentary sadly is Bourdain’s own reflections beyond his travels and perhaps the family he built from scratch. We do not hear much about what his childhood was like, how he got introduced to drugs such as heroin, how did he succumb to his addiction to it, and what how his two marriages and past girlfriends affected his outlook on love and life. During the documentary, we are perhaps best informed about who Anthony was as a cook, as a traveler, as a friend, who he was as a father, but it is hard to know who we were behind closed doors when the cameras were not rolling.

There are some aspects of his personality that you can glean from the documentary such as his addictive habits whether it would be using heroin, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or wanting to hold on to his relationships even perhaps their natural end date. For better or worse, as the film portrays, Bourdain loved experiencing novelty and new things which led him to his legendary status as a globetrotter, but it also could backfire in terms of giving too much of himself to people without getting as much in return. It seemed from ‘Roadrunner’ that Bourdain would seek to please others before pleasing himself and that could have led to some deeper dissatisfaction with life. It can be hard to feel as if you’re giving more than receiving and I do believe that does play a role in depression.

You can also infer from ‘Roadrunner’ that Anthony’s romantic views on life, on love and on travel did not always meet reality. He could be very demanding in his professional career and rude or dismissive of his long-time camera crew and production team. It’s shown that he could make rash decisions about hiring and firing of personnel as well as set very high expectations for his television show, which could not always be met by those who worked with him. It’s also true that in his last romantic relationship with Ms. Argento, he would let his personal desires to please her or work with a famous director like Mr. Feng that led to him putting his crew’s creative input on the back burner. When he expressed his desire to quit traveling a few years before his death, his production team encouraged him to do it if he felt it was time to do so and they wouldn’t stop him, but it was as if Bourdain needed someone to validate his decisions to go through with them.

‘Roadrunner’ succeeds in telling the story of one of our young century’s great explorers and cultural ambassadors. In 2021, there are still some gaps in our knowledge of who Anthony Bourdain was and how he felt about his life. Sadly, we will never know the full story because of his tragic death by suicide and we can only infer on how such a bright life could be extinguished too soon when he had so much more to give to the world, to his family, and to his friends. Unfortunately, not all men make it to a ripe old age to be surrounded by those who matter most to them.

Names like Hemingway, London, and now Bourdain died at middle-aged by in their lives accomplished or saw or did as much as five men combined who lived longer than them. It is not the years in your life that matter but the life in your years and Anthony Bourdain made the most of his life as few could or will do again. Even more than three years after his death, he is sorely missed, and the world is not as well off without him and his impact. From the Congo to Iran to Antarctica to Libya, he was not afraid or reticent of sharing a meal with those who were different than him even when he had nothing personally in common with them.

I hope that the ‘Roadrunner’ documentary becomes part of Anthony Bourdain’s legacy and inspires both young and old people to see the world as it is and to hopefully mold it little by little through travels and meals to change the world bit by bit into the world that we would like it to be. That would be a fine way to honor his legacy and to make the world a little less unknown.

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

‘The Terminal’ – Film Review and Analysis

“Perhaps that is what endears Viktor so much to the audience in this film is that he does not give up hope, makes the best of the awful situation he is in, and even starts to befriend other airport workers who are often ignored, underpaid, or even mistreated at times by both customers and their employers.”

A lot of us know what it is like to wait in an airport and have to stay overnight at one because your flight runs into an unexpected delay whether it’s due to a plane’s mechanical issue, or there are weather complications, or if a global pandemic cancels your flight unexpectedly. Whatever the cause of your delay, I am sure you never have had to live in an airport for months on end let alone for more than a day. The questions you should ask yourself though if you could put yourself in this following hypothetical scenario: What if you couldn’t leave the airport upon arrival in a new country? What if the country you just left, your home country, underwent significant political changes or even revolution overnight leaving you stranded? The very underrated yet enjoyable ‘The Terminal’ movie asks these unique questions.

A mix of fiction and non-fiction, a concoction of drama, comedy, and a little bit of tragedy all together, ‘The Terminal’ is a 2004 American film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones. The premise may seem out there of someone being stuck in an airport for months or years but ‘The Terminal’ is partly based on the true story of a real-life refugee. Mr. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee lived in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport and was considered ‘stateless’ for many years and was denied entry into France while also not being expelled from the airport. In total, he lived in the de Gaulle airport for over 18 years and only left from there in 2008 when he was moved for medical treatment and then a Paris shelter.

Nasseri, like ‘The Terminal’s main character have that premise in common of not being able to enter their new chosen destination but also having the right to live in the airport without being expelled. Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) is on his way to New York City from the fictional Eastern European country known as ‘Krakozhia’ looking to fulfill a personal mission, which is unknown to the viewer right away. We see images of him arriving at JFK along with thousands of others looking to visit America from far-flung countries. However, a routine Visa check and Passport stamp ends up as a nightmare for poor Viktor.

While Viktor was flying into John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, his country underwent a political revolution and civil conflict leaving him without international recognition of his Passport since Krakozhia no longer has a recognized government. Since his passport is no longer valid, he cannot enter the United States because the U.S. does not recognize the country anymore due to the ongoing civil strife. Viktor is now ‘stateless’ as he cannot return home and he cannot leave the airport rendering him stranded there. Viktor is forced to remain in the international transit lounge and is not given much help by Frank Dixon (played by Stanley Tucci) who would much rather Viktor leave the airport to get arrested so he becomes someone else’s problem. Mr. Dixon, the Acting Field commissioner for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, gives Viktor only a handful of food vouchers and a calling card but not much else to get by on.

Viktor has a destination in mind for his New York City trip but has limited English skills when he arrives and is only able to tell the CBP officer the name of a local hotel but does not go into much detail about why he is going there and what the purpose of his stay might be. Without his passport and his return ticket, Viktor’s life shrinks down to the international transit lounge at JFK airport where he spends his days collecting luggage carts to order Burger King, accidentally breaks a young girl’s luggage, and slips, falls when he runs to see news about Krakozhia because the Indian American janitor enjoys seeing people slip for his only entertainment.

Eventually, Viktor becomes accustomed to living in an airport and at first, while both daunting and scary to the stateless refugee, he adapts to his new living conditions with some ingenuity and perseverance. He constructs his own bed by dismantling the arm rests of the seats at an abandoned terminal, he learns English through travel guides and by watching the scroll of news information come across the screen to keep up to date with what is going on with his beloved Krakozhia and can both shower and shave somehow when using the airport bathroom.

Human beings have an innate need to adapt to our surroundings even when they are unfamiliar, foreign, or stressful for us. Perhaps that is what endears Viktor so much to the audience in this film is that he does not give up hope, makes the best of the awful situation he is in, and even starts to befriend other airport workers who are often ignored, underpaid, or even mistreated at times by both customers and their employers. The power of perseverance in the face of obstacles makes ‘The Terminal’ a heartwarming and memorable film. Instead of getting down on life and giving up on his situation, he turns the tables on Frank and the border agents by not falling into their traps that they set for him. He makes his own happiness. One of the best moments of this film is when a random gentleman is shaving alongside Vikor, stops for a second, and says to Viktor, “Do you ever get the feeling that you’re just living in an airport?”

Being stuck in an airport terminal means a lot of time on your hands too. Viktor spends his almost limitless time in waiting by honing his skills as a carpenter and a painter even getting himself a job that allows him to earn money ‘under the table’ as a contractor mostly so he can eat. He befriends the CBP officers he sees each day even though they continue to deny his tourist visa due to his invalid passport. One CBP officer whom he gets to know very well is Dolores who Enrique (Diego Luna) has a massive crush on and would like Viktor to ask her questions to start an eventual conversation with her.

In return, Enrique gives him some extra airplane meals that he delivers on to the planes. Gupta, the janitor who at first makes fun of Viktor for slipping and not seeing the ‘wet floor’ sign eventually gains respect for Viktor because he makes him feel less lonely. Viktor befriends other transit lounge employees, plays card games with them over ‘lost’ items never picked up by passengers, and is able to win the admiration and possible affection of Amelia, a wayward flight attendant who ends up caught in a ‘love triangle’ between Viktor and another man.

While Amelia is always on the go and can’t seem to stand still in her relationships or in her job, Viktor is the exact opposite in that he can’t go and must always stay. Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones have real chemistry in this movie and represent how different their characters are from each other but can bond over their shared humor, interests, and lust for life even if they are opposites in an ironic sense with where they are in their lives, one stuck in limbo and the other always on the go.

The main mystery that I will not spoil for you is why Viktor flew halfway around the world to be in New York and what exactly is in the Planters peanut can, which he won’t let go of even after being in the airport for nine months. More important than his passport or return ticket, the closed Planters can contain the reason for Viktor’s trip and how he ended up this limbo state even though he has a place to go to before he returns to Krakozhia.

By the end of the film, you and the rest of the audience are rooting for a happy ending for Viktor and even for perhaps with Amelia as well. You also see heartwarming stories of Viktor helping a fellow Krakozhian in need of translation help, aiding Gupta with staying in his job and the U.S., as well as getting Enrique and Dolores to successfully date and marry each other.

‘The Terminal’ is perhaps Spielberg’s most heartwarming, underrated, and emotionally uplifting movie in his storied career as one of the world’s greatest directors. With great acting and an impressive accent by Hanks, lovely humor and touching romantic scenes with Zeta-Jones and the excellent Stanley Tucci who plays a man who can be cruel but also compassionate in the same scene but ends up as the film’s antagonist. This film has a little bit of everything and will make you laugh, cry, and even cheer at the ending.

‘The Terminal’ is a reminder that we are all waiting for something or someone in the winding road that is life itself. Sometimes, we get sidetracked, turned around, or even stuck in an airport for days or months even, but we always can find a way to make the best of our new surroundings, even find happiness or love in the place where we least expect it. Viktor Navorski as I would say is a real mensch who finds himself in a terrible situation, one not of his own making, but is able to create an odd life out of being given nothing and is able to help others and become a favorite of the JFK international transit lounge, which is a place that people want to get out of as soon as possible. He can’t leave but he ends up enjoying the long stay thanks to his compassion, kindness, and genuine warmth as a good person.

Anatomy of a Scene – ‘At A Crossroads’

“Sometimes, the only way to move forward in life is to look for a sign or in this case, a person to help guide you in the right direction.”

“You look lost.” “I do?” “Where you headed?”, “Well, I was just about to figure that out.”

There are moments in life where the road ahead looks vague and uncertain, where we struggle to figure out what happens next or what should we do next. You can have a map with you, and you have an idea of where you want to go but there are four directions ahead and you’re not sure whether to go north, south, east, or west. Sometimes, the only way to move forward in life is to look for a sign or in this case, a person to help guide you in the right direction.

A brilliant movie in its own right, ‘Cast Away’ is about a man whose life is upended by mother nature and who will never be the same again. Without spoiling too much of the movie, Chuck (the main character) loses years away from his wife, his job, and his lifestyle and while he was away from it all, the world moved on without him. Most heartbreakingly, he cannot get back the time he lost working for FedEx or being with his wife or integrating back into his former lifestyle after having his life upended by mother nature.

Similar to how oftentimes in our lives, people move on without us. Friendships sometimes end, romantic partnerships fizzle out, and loved ones can grow distant from us on purpose or by accident. The message of the ‘Crossroads’ scene that I have included above is that life goes on with or without us and if we are still here on the planet, we cannot hold on too tightly to the past and must instead try to chart a new path forward even when that is often difficult to do.

This particular movie scene is one that a lot of us can relate to right away. You’ve finished your education, maybe you’ve quit a job, or you decided to retire and are wondering, ‘what’s next?’, which is an essential question of the human condition. It is hard to pause when you’ve had a routine upended or a part of your life just end one day, and you are not sure what will come next. You may have a couple of choices pulling you in different directions and you are looking for a sign of what to do next. Sometimes, that sign comes to you based on a significant item, object, or memory that pulls you in a certain direction but oftentimes, we just have to make the best decision that we have based on our thoughts and assumptions on the way forward. After making ‘crossroads’ decisions of my own in life, what’s important to realize is you have to make some choice and not stagnate in your own worries about what could happen. The worst decision would be to make no choice at all and let your life stay in a perpetual kind of limbo. Chuck was close to doing just that in ‘Cast Away’ before he found the sign that he needed in an unlikely place.

This ‘Crossroads’ scene starts exactly with that image of a crossroads on a non-descript road in middle America, which could be Kansas but is actually somewhere in rural Texas. Chuck, our protagonist, looks lost as he gets out of his car at this dirt crossroads, takes a big gulp of water in the hot Texan sun, and gets his large USA map out to chart his next decision. He just left the house of someone whose package with ‘angel wings’ helped him a lot during his isolation from civilization and for which he brought back their package as a way of thanking him or her. The people in Chuck’s life have moved on without him and he is not sure what comes next given he is a free man after years away from people but at the same time has lost his wife, his job, and his previous lifestyle to one fateful event that was out of his control, and which seemed like an act of God or mother nature.

Any part of this scenario would frighten and subdue even the most resilient person in the world, but Chuck is resilient albeit perplexed on how he ended up where he is without a sign of a compass to chart his way forward. When Chuck reaches this four-way crossroads and stops to check his map, a woman in a red, flatbed truck comes up to greet him and see if he needs any help and if ‘he is lost.’ She tries to give him advice on whether to go north to Canada, west to California, or eastward bound to the coast but he seems resilient if not a bit stubborn after being on his own for so long. Still though, the redheaded woman is kind and sweet in her manner and she says back to Chuck, “well, alright, good luck, cowboy!”

As the sweet-natured woman starts to drive away in her truck, Chuck notices something he’s seen before. A pair of yellow angel wings at the back of her truck’s bumper that he’s seen before on the package he had with him all those years. He knows now that the package he delivered was the one to her house and it was her package! A range of emotions hit Chuck all at once as he becomes shocked, bemused, and then pensive as if he should follow her or not.

Most intriguingly, towards the end of this scene, chuck now with the first sign in a while of where he might go next in life, stands in the middle of the four-way crossroads thinking about the woman whose package had such a big impact on him in his years-long solitude and how likely it is that he finds her attractive as well as kind. The camera pans out to show him in the middle of the crossroads looking at the different directions where he could possibly go next but then the camera lingers on his face as he moves to the direction where he really wants to go. It is the redhead’s truck’s direction down the long, sloping road ahead and Chuck begins to smile as he finally knows where to the long road of his life should end up next.

It is a very poignant and moving scene as we all must make decisions like Chuck in terms of where we want to go next in life. These decisions are hard to make and sometimes involve real regrets but also lead to joy, peace, and happiness. We must do our best to choose wisely in life, but like Chuck did, we must look for the signs where and when we can, and then we must make a choice because not making a choice is not living at all, it is merely existing and that is no way to go through life.

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