“A Splash of Hope”
Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer’s new film, A Hologram for the King constructs a fabulous post-colonial romance out of references to two very different Hollywood films. Adapted from a novel by Dave Eggers, the film concerns a failed businessman, Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) who travels to Saudi Arabia to sell computer systems. He befriends a taxi driver, Yousef (Alexander Black) who invites him to go hunting for wolves that are threatening his family’s livestock. While the other hunters are distracted, Alan sets his sights on a wolf whose body is illuminated behind a white tent in the distance. He twice pauses, seeming ready to shoot, but then lets his quarry wander off without pulling the trigger.
This is, of course, the most famous moment from Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1977), when Mike (Robert DeNiro), having suffered the traumas of Vietnam, returns to rural Pennsylvania, unable to kill a deer, instead firing into the air and shouting into the void. What occurs at the end of The Deer Hunter happens in the middle of A Hologram for the King, before any resolution has presented itself to Alan. Furthermore, the beginning and end of Cimino’s film occur on American soil, whereas the entirety of A Hologram for the King takes place overseas. The Deer Hunter is a film about the American colonialist folly in Vietnam, implicitly arguing for the centripetal, the need to return home and look inward. Despite our nation’s similar foolishness in endless wars in the Middle East, A Hologram for the King is centrifugal, pushing Alan outward from a failed American economy.
The film threatens to end with failure. The holographic pitch to the King goes wonderfully, but Alan tells us in voice over that the contract went to a Chinese company instead. Alan continues by announcing that he is happy to be staying on in Saudi Arabia, having secured a job selling apartments. Alan has fallen in love with a Saudi doctor, Zahra, played by Sarita Choudhury, a revelation so many years after her breakout performance in Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair’s 1992 film in which she plays an Indian immigrant to the South. Zahra lives at the beach, but must swim topless with Alan out in the ocean, ironically to fool her snooping neighbors, who will merely think two men are out snorkeling. Zahra coaxes Alan to the bottom of the sea, where she kisses him, far from the prying eyes of the prudish Saudi gender police.
This is the film’s most emotionally powerful intertextual engagement, to Ron Howard’s Splash (1984), in which Tom Hanks falls in love with a mermaid, Madison (Daryl Hannah). Hanks’ character, again named Allen declares to the mermaid that he wants to come live with her, away from the evil military in pursuit of her anatomical secrets. They dive into the sea as the film ends, kissing and swimming together, again shrouded from the oppression that lies above the water’s surface.
All but the last few moments of Splash are centripetal. Allen encounters Madison twice off the shores of Cape Cod, only to return to his job in Manhattan. She has to follow him into the city. A Hologram for the King is doing something different from the outset: it forces Alan out of the country, never to return. Zahra replicates the ending of Splash with her Alan, Tom Hanks now thirty-two years older, a comedian turned dramatic actor, far less smug, rendered melancholic by life’s hardships. No stranger to suffering, Zahra must contend with the inconceivable sexism faced by an unmarried professional woman living in Saudi Arabia.
While hunting wolves, Yousef asks Alan if he would come support his democratic revolution against the repressive Saudi Arabian dictatorship. Zahra is engineering an insurrection of her own, one grounded in caring, not bullets. She enlists Alan not as a freedom fighter, but as a lover. While ordinarily dismissed as lachrymose, the basic emotion of love is, as the Hollywood film rightfully teaches us, the fount from which long-standing cultural change flows. The rebellion that will truly make a splash in Saudi Arabia is the one engaged not by Yousef but by Zahra. A Hologram for the King sends Alan off in search of the meaning of his life, and he finds it by never returning to America; instead, he falls in love with his soul mate, discovered under a hijab in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert. It is a beautiful post-colonial romance for the 21st century.