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Films ponder U.S. post-Sept. 11

"The Terminal," "Fahrenhait 911" and "America's Heart and Soul" take different looks at a changed America.
/ Source: Reuters

Nearly three years later, Sept. 11 has come to Hollywood.

Three new films starting with Friday’s debut of Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” ask Americans to look at who they have become since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The other movies, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and the Disney-backed, “America’s Heart and Soul,” are far different than Spielberg’s film.

To start, both are documentaries. Moore’s film claims Americans were duped by the Bush administration into supporting the war in Iraq. “Heart and Soul” features uplifting stories about people living unconventional lives.

“Terminal,” a romantic comedy, stars Tom Hanks as a foreigner stranded for nine months in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Catherine Zeta-Jones is his love interest. But beyond all the Spielberg romance and comical situations, its message is just as serious as the other films.

“One of my reactions when I read the script ... was to say, ‘Here’s a chance, in the shadow of 9/11, to show people from all walks of life.’ If we spend enough time getting to know what they are are all about, it will assuage our fears and turn us back into trusting human beings,” Spielberg said.

Generally, films can take two or more years to get from idea to screens. Moore told Reuters he first decided to pursue “Fahrenheit” in November 2001.

At January’s Sundance Film Festival, this soul-searching turned up in independent films and now seems to be making its way to mainstream Hollywood.

Closed borders“Terminal” looks at a United States that has closed its border to one man, Viktor Navorski (Hanks) of the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia.

Viktor lands at New York’s J.F.K. airport just as his country is overrun by rebels. Since his government is no longer in power, the U.S. will not recognize his entry visa. Because the new Krakozhia has sealed its border, Navorski cannot go home.

Frank Dixon, as a representative of the Homeland Security Department, puts Navorski in the international traveler terminal where he is free to roam. But he cannot leave. Dixon, played by Stanley Tucci, makes that clear.

The terminal is filled not only with foreign travelers, but also by immigrants and working class employees of the fast-food restaurants and gift shops who earn minimum wage paychecks.

“The International terminal is a microcosm of the early immigrant experience coming here to America,” Spielberg said.

The serious message about a nation founded by immigrants closing its doors to visitors, does not stop “Terminal” from having many light moments. Navorski has to find places to sleep, bathe and eat in the terminal. He also falls for Zeta-Jones and is a go between in another airport love affair.

Spielberg admits some of the serious ideas “will go right over audience heads.” It is, after all, a summer movie.

But maybe not. A pivotal moment comes when Navorski does Dixon a favor, then puts his overseer in a bad situation. Dixon enforces his authority, but does so in a show of inhumanity.

The twist is that Dixon, although the villain, is not a bad guy. He is doing his duty, being responsible and trying to earn a promotion. “Post 9/11, people want Dixon to do his job, and they want him to be good at it,” said Spielberg.

Beyond “Terminal,” “Heart and Soul,” which opens in theaters on July 2, profiles people who have chosen lifestyles outside normal bounds, but one of its themes is that these people are free to pursue and enjoy their individuality.

Director Louis Schwartzberg said he did much of the filming before Sept. 11, but now is a better time to release the film.

“We have some important decisions to make on what direction we want to take our country in,” he said.

And that is exactly one of the questions posed by Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which hits theaters June 25.