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New films are dropping more Americans abroad. Is it a good thing?

 New films are dropping more Americans abroad. Is it a good thing?
Tom Hanks, right, with Alexander Black, plays a dispossessed American sales executive aiming to reinvent himself in Saudi Arabia in “A Hologram for the King.” (Helmut Prein)

It may be true, as Mark Twain once wrote, that "broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one's lifetime."

If contemporary filmmaking is to be believed, though, planting seeds in new lands can still result in some pretty nasty farming accidents.

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On Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival, and then on Friday in theaters around the country, the new Tom Hanks movie "A Hologram for the King" will play to audiences. Directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and based on a Dave Eggers bestseller, it is a modest release, at least by modern Marvel standards; its story of a dispossessed American sales executive would seem like so many midlife crises pictures of the past few decades.

Yet "Hologram" is about places less familiar: a man who heads to the alien sands of Saudi Arabia to revive his flagging career, only to encounter some international-sized bumps along the way.

As the film plays out, it reveals itself to be the latest but by no means last of an emergent  breed. On screens everywhere, Americans are leaving their homeland — for reasons of necessity, opportunity or simple desperation — and dropping into exotic locales. Sometimes they're in Afghanistan, joining a fraternity of unmoored journalists (Tina Fey's "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"), finessing singing competitions (Bill Murray's "Rock the Kasbah") or even observing military exploits (Brad Pitt's "War Machine," out in the fall).

In other cases they've headed to Fallujah, to deal weapons (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill's "War Dogs," out this summer). In some instances, they've traveled south, to Latin America, to goose elections (Sandra Bullock's "Our Brand Is Crisis").

While the settings are different, these Americans-abroad movies all tend to share certain markings. A person savvy at home is given a comeuppance when traveling abroad. Soldiers are often featured characters, but civilians are most often the focus; these are films mainly set in war zones, but they're not war films. There is almost always a colorful but wise driver — the foreign fixer is to the American-abroad film what Morgan Freeman is to God movies.

Bill Murray's has-been music manager finds himself in Afghanistan, finessing singing contests in “Rock the Kasbah.&#8221
Bill Murray's has-been music manager finds himself in Afghanistan, finessing singing contests in “Rock the Kasbah.” (Kerry Brown / Open Road Films)

And there is nearly always a scene where a person ventures out of their comfort zone to understand the local culture, only to be startled by the level of poverty or violence they encounter. It makes a viewer wonder where such a person lived before, and if such a place lacked access to CNN.

The timing has become right for these movies. As U.S. military exercises quiet down (for now), it is safer to view these hot spots from a closer vantage point without worrying about (or feeling guilty for) their abject conditions . Now that a cultural exhale has begun, we can laugh a little more. But are such ambitions a good thing?

More than most subgenres in Hollywood, these Americans-abroad films come from a good and less profiteering place. These are movies of globalized ambition, but in the best way, designed to shed light. Where corporate Hollywood executives are looking to colonize other parts of the world, these filmmakers simply hope to understand it. Where presidential candidates try to exploit otherness, these movies seek to dialogue with it.

"People travel more; we meet people from more places than ever. Yet this experience doesn't seem to be reflected in our culture," Tykwer said when asked why he and others seem to be taking on these films. "How they're handled in our politics is abstractly, from a distance. The separation of cultures that seems active in daily politics does not resonate with personal experience. So we're trying to break that separation, that way of being kept at a distance."

And yet that doesn't answer an age-old question. Are noble ambitions tantamount to good results?

It's an issue many centuries old, at least since Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus out exploring: Is looking beyond one's borders a recognition of a wider world or an attempt to impose dominance on it?

Certainly at a time when one can decry Hollywood for becoming every narrower (by growing ever more superheroic and interstellar), it's hard to be too cynical about a movie that takes modern earthly complexities into account.

"The film works against the first draft tropes of a very mysterious and, let's face it, odd place," Hanks said in an email of the depiction of Saudi Arabia in "Hologram." "If we do it right, it's a brand new world."

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He has a point — these films offer fresh, dramatic opportunities, not to mention educational ones.

Yet one still can't help feeling a little uncomfortable about these movies, nagged by the sense that so much foreign experience is coming through the lens of Americans, that to understand a distant land filmmakers feel we must have an A-list movie star and a jingoistic pair of glasses, even if its lenses do fog up along the way.

American film characters have been hopping to foreign conflict-ridden places for a long time. As far back as the 1930's, in fact, when William Wellman, in "Men With Wings," had his World War I veteran main character traveling to China and grappling with various forms of culture shock.

But the current crop is bigger, and born of different factors. There is, of course, globalization and social media--one hears the latter term the way high-school history students hear about the rise of the Middle Class. And there are the cinematic lineages. Hollywood for many years has given us the war picture, with brothers forced to band together in places where they are always in the minority and frequently not welcome. It's also given us that film of the American quickly in over their head in another country.

The subgenre reached  its quantitative if not exactly creative peak in the 1980's, with films such as Roman Polanski's "Frantic" and, more campily, the Anthony Edwards-starring "Gotcha!" Much like 21st-century conflicts, the Cold War offered itself up for friction and paranoia—Edwards stepping into East Berlin got him killed, even if the mysterious agent of danger was Linda Fiorentino, and even if she turned out to be from Pittsburgh.

#8220;Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” with Evan Jonigkeit and Tina Fey, focuses on war correspondents.
#8220;Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” with Evan Jonigkeit and Tina Fey, focuses on war correspondents. (Frank Masi / Paramount Pictures and Broadway)

If today's films are generally more wry and world weary about the dangers, they nonetheless fall into the same cautionary bucket: Picking up a passport and flying to an exotic location could really get you hurt.

These efforts, it should be said, pose risks for directors as well. They are not easy movies to make, almost always pitched between laughter and tears. The fish out of water is an inherently comedic character. Yet the reason many of these characters go to foreign countries, and the fates that stalk them once they arrive, are often far from funny. Filmmakers like to talk about a comedy that comes from situations--"grounded," in screenwriter parlance--but another way to put this is a movie that never makes it clear when to laugh.

"There's a definite shape to a movie like this, starting more comedic and getting more dramatic," said Robert Carlock, who penned "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." "But it's hard to get that shape right. We wanted people to feel the brutality of war; we wanted them to feel the fear, but also the fun and the craziness. And that's the challenging part."

Probing beneath common perception isn't easy either.

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"I think [these films] only work when the audience sees both behavior that is common to all people and realities they never expected," Hanks wrote in the email. "The common thought is all Saudis are rich because of all that oil. But the majority of the population is not connected to that power. There are immigrant workers, and drivers and laborers who are just trying to get by. I'm not sure how much of that ordinariness is understood."

Also running under these movies are ambiguous moral messages, which is what tends to happen when Americans, whether noble or self-interested, end up in places with complicated dynamics. "War Dogs," coming to theaters in August, is perhaps the most ethically complex of the bunch. Centered on the Wild West-like arms world of mid-2000s Iraq, it follows a pair of hotshot young Miamians (Hill and Teller) as they improbably build a name for themselves as on-the-margins gun-runners, even as foreign forces they don't understand start to get the better of them.

The movie walks a fascinatingly thin line: Is its characters' moral vacuousness a glorification or an indictment? Is this "The Wolf of Wall Street," or "The Wolf of Wall Street" with a conscience?

"I don't think you walk away from the movie saying these are bad guys,"  Phillips said. "But it is showing everybody the system is rigged. I think a lot of people are starting to coming to that realization."

It's been ten years since "Blood Diamond," in which Leonardo DiCaprio, that most American of movie stars (though playing a Zimbabwean here) was neither savior nor villain, but a flawed opportunist who reluctanly would come to do the right thing. That character was, perhaps, the beginning of this new wave of Americans abroad, and a reflection of larger cultural shifts.

"I think the difference is the Internet and specifically, Vice," said the film's producer, Paula Weinstein. "There's a different way of looking at news, of trying to understand how we got here, and the split between how some of us live and how the rest of the world lives."

How deeply we truly want to understand remains an open question — none of the movies from the recent crop has done well at the box office. But there is perhaps at least some solace to be taken from filmmaker intention. Foreign lands on the big screen were once more overt threats, and the Americans who landed in them more self-assured heroes. That's no longer true.

"To me, the substantial difference is we used to go in there to tell guys how things should be, or go in to get people out to bring them to a free country. None of these movies are doing that," Tykwer said. "Tom Hanks is the most sympathetic American character you could bring to other countries — he's the most likable and representative, in a good way. But he's not going to save anyone, and he's not going to be victimized," the director added. "He's not there to remind us of how bad other cultures are, or to escape from one. This isn't 'Not Without My Daughter 2.' We've come a long way since that."

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