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.

‘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.

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