A review of Iron Man (produced by Marvel Studios; directed by John Favreau; screenplay by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby; distributed by Paramount Pictures) and The Visitor (produced by Groundswell Productions; directed and written by Thomas McCarthy; distributed by Overture Films)

[amazonify]B00005JPS8[/amazonify]It is always reassuring when a big-budget superhero film fulfills its responsibility to edify the young. Iron Man, the latest Marvel comic book to come to life on the big screen, does just that. This movie teaches youngsters that it’s righteously cool to kill Middle Easterners by the caravanload.

Iron Man is, in short, a mechanized wog obliterator, if I may borrow Mrs. Clinton’s mot juste as to what she would like to do to Iran if things got out of order. And we wonder why Middle Easterners hate us. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Iron Man is really Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), an arms manufacturer who never saw a war he didn’t like. We first meet him as he skims the Afghan desert in the backseat of a Humvee while sipping a Scotch and joking merrily with the soldiers accompanying him. He is on a mission to assess how well his weapons are slaughtering the local wogs. But the joke’s on him. His Humvee is blasted by one of his own weapons stolen by a troop of cave-dwelling Afghan . . . insurgents? Terrorists? It is hard to say. In a futile attempt to avoid offending overseas markets, the film never utters the words Muslim, Islam, or Al Qaeda. Lots of luck.

Stark wakes in a makeshift clinic where Yinsen (Shaun Toub), an Afghan doctor and one of the few good wogs, has installed an electromagnet in the center of his chest. Stark’s body has been perforated by shrapnel from one of his own missiles. The metal fragments are intelligent. If they don’t kill the victim upon penetration, they gravitate to his heart to do the job later. The gizmo Yinsen has installed deflects their deadly mission. It also works as a handy symbol. Yinsen has given Stark the heart he never had. Before becoming Iron Man, he becomes Tin Man, searching for an Ozian rainbow.

And so the cynical arms manufacturer begins to rethink his callous ways. He learns that the doctor is as much a prisoner as himself and, worse, that the bad Afghans are threatening to kill his family if he doesn’t keep Stark alive. They want the “most famous mass murderer in America,” as they respectfully address him, to build them one of his ominously named Jericho missiles. It seems they have some more walls to set a-tumble. Under the pretense of following their wishes, the ingenious Stark builds a weaponized metal suit instead to make his escape. Although he fully intends to bring Yinsen with him, the doctor, true to his good wog status, happily plays Gunga Din and sacrifices himself so Stark can blast his way to safety.

Once back in America, a chastened Stark holds a press conference announcing that his company will no longer make weapons but turn to peaceful pursuits. Understandably, his board of directors and second-in-command are thrown into a tizzy and take the company away from him. For reasons not entirely clear to me, Stark repairs to his home lab and, with the help of a robot more solicitous than Luke Skywalker’s R2D2, improves upon his original metal suit, transforming it into a gleaming red and gold mannequin reminiscent of Hollywood’s Oscar award. This comes in handy when he learns from CNN that the bad wogs have invaded Yinsen’s village and are forcing the men to join their campaign. The bald, beardless, and blatantly un-Islamic leader, Raza (Faran Tahir), has monomaniacal ambitions to be the next Genghis Khan, ruling an empire that will extend from Arabia to the Pacific. Stark suits up metallically, blasts off, and swoops down on these nasties, killing them right and left. But, of course, he does so with a precision that guarantees the safety of the innocent. At one point the bad wogs take hold of a group of women and children, using them as shields against the titanium warrior. No problem. Stark simply programs the mini-multi-missile launcher built into his arm and targets them so exactingly that the shells only explode the villains, leaving the innocents they are clutching wholly unscathed. It is a variation on the smart bombs we used to hear about, the ones that only killed the bad wogs and left the good eternally grateful for our intervention. Well, what are comic books for if not dreaming?

I suppose I wouldn’t mind all this if it were happening in some comic book never-never land. But this action takes place in present-day Afghanistan where, in pursuit of a just goal, our actual Armed Forces have inadvertently wrought incalculable havoc on innocent people. This is not fantasy land; it is the sorry site of our failure to capture Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda forces because of our current administration’s infamously wrongheaded decision to wage a larger war in Iraq. To make this the background of a children’s fantasy is flatly obscene. Worse, it could conceivably lead our young to believe in the myth of American omnipotence, setting them up to countenance a future administration’s military folly.

Speaking of obscene, why in a children’s movie do we need to watch the hero casually bed a brazen babe on the make? Although their coupling is shown in shadow, even an eight-year-old would not mistake it for a friendly wrestling match. Or does the fact that the woman is a feisty reporter who learned to scorn America’s Middle Eastern policies at left-wing Brown University justify screwing her?

[amazonify]B0015OKWKI[/amazonify]The Visitor, a film of exquisite charm and poignance directed by Thomas McCarthy, turns the geopolitical tables. Here, the Middle East and Africa invade New York City. This will not surprise anyone who has walked the streets of the city’s five boroughs, of course. Nevertheless McCarthy has rendered this invasion with an astonishing intimacy that forces us to rethink our positions on the fraught issue of immigration.

The film begins with the portrait of a wan WASP not living but rather existing in suburban Connecticut. So wan is Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) that we don’t even see him at first as McCarthy’s camera glides about the empty rooms of his chaste and chilly home. Then the doorbell rings, breaking the genteel hush, and, finally, Walter appears, a bespectacled man in his early 60’s who would seem inoffensively mild were it not for his perpetually guarded expression. In glancing asides, we slowly learn that he is a widower who has not yet come to terms with the loss of his wife, a concert pianist. As if to sustain her presence, he has embarked upon piano lessons for himself, but it’s going dismally. His instructor tries to console him. “Learning an instrument at your age is difficult, especially if you don’t possess a natural gift for it,” she says, in an entirely misconceived attempt at kindness. Walter merely stares at her wordlessly through his black-rimmed glasses. He is trying to reconnect to the lost rhythm of his former life, only to suffer this fatuous consolation.

More than piano lessons, Walter needs to be shaken from his soul-destroying depression. On cue, the shaking begins the next day. Teaching global economics at a Connecticut university, Walter has allowed himself to become that most useless of things, an uninterested and uninteresting professor. He hasn’t prepared a class for years, nor has he written much of anything since publishing the four books that established him earlier in his career. When his chairman asks him to give a talk at a New York University conference on global economics, he reluctantly agrees and takes himself to his Greenwich Village apartment located near the school. Upon entering the apartment, he discovers he has unexpected visitors. He hasn’t been there in some time, and in his absence a young couple have taken up residence. After a few fearful moments on both sides, Walter and his uninvited guests figure out what has happened. The couple were misled to believe they were subletting from a “friend.” Both are illegal aliens who have fled their home countries—Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) from Syria; his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal. They apologize, and Tarek offers to pay for their tenancy; Walter declines. They quickly pack their few things and leave. When Walter discovers them on the street a little later, desperately phoning their friends to find quarters for the night, he takes pity and invites them back into his apartment, saying they can stay until they find something else that suits them.

While they share the apartment, Walter becomes fascinated by Tarek’s talent on the djembe, a West African drum he plays professionally in various jazz clubs. Tarek offers to teach Walter how to play, and, with some coaxing, the reserved academic agrees. Things go fitfully at first, but this doesn’t deter Tarek. He’s a natural enthusiast and keeps encouraging Walter. “Walter,” he says, “I know you’re a very smart man, but with a drum you have to remember not to think. Thinking just screws it up.” This is Walter’s breakthrough. Soon after, he is joining Tarek, drumming in Central Park with other enthusiasts, often the only white guy in the group and certainly the only 60-year-old wearing a tie and sport jacket under a nylon windbreaker. I am usually not a fan of the don’t-think-just-be philosophy, but seeing the joy that overtakes Walter’s face in these sessions, I found it impossible not to respond to the life-affirming energy invading his long-stifled existence. Tarek’s trespass has colonized him with unexpected joy. Jenkins is marvelous in these scenes. He manages to convey both Walter’s awkwardness as a reserved, isolated intellectual and his growing exuberance as a man rediscovering his life’s rhythm.

This is one aspect of Walter’s return to life. There is another, however, and it has none of drumming’s appeal. When immigration authorities discover Tarek’s illegal status, they clap him in a detention center, a grim cement block of a building. Uncharacteristically, Walter wastes no time. He hires an immigration lawyer in an attempt to extricate Tarek from the Byzantine toils of INS regulations. He also sees to the needs of Tarek’s mother, who flies in from Michigan to help her son. Eventually, he even takes a leave of absence from his university to support Tarek. In short, he wrenches himself out of his guarded insularity, trying to shout down fate itself. It is his belated assertion that he is still alive.

It is tempting to dismiss this film for being foolishly sentimental about illegal immigration. But that’s too easy. McCarthy is not arguing ideology. He is on the side of individual humans. He recognizes that we are all visitors here, calling hopefully to one another across the borders that separate us, banking on what we share despite our differences.

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