Saturday, June 11, 2005

Two Hours, Eight Minutes Of My Life: Stolen!

And, Steven Spielberg is the thief.

To my knowledge, there are no great movies in which Customs has played a major role. There are a few good ones and one terrible film called The Terminal which I have only had the recent misfortune to see. This movie is the dim witted offspring of two much better movies: Moscow on the Hudson and Cast Away. I have no doubt that is how it was pitched to studios in the meetings.

Don't dismiss this as coming from one of those people who watches a movie related to his or her profession and can't get past the technical defects in the script. You know, the lawyers who cannot watch a courtroom drama without periodically shouting "Objection!" at the screen. This also applies to ER docs who harrumph at fake CPR and military people who complain about everything that happens in a war movie. I'm not like that as long as the movie is interesting and internally consistent.

The Terminal is neither. The movie is about a guy named Navorsky--played by Tom Hanks--arriving at JFK from a fake Eastern European country that has undergone a coup while he was in the air. As a result, his passport and visa are invalid and he cannot return home until his country is recognized by the U.S. I have no idea whether an immigration lawyer would sigh heavily at the implausibility of that, but I can buy into it as plot device to get the guy stuck in the international transit lounge at JFK. While there, he falls under the jurisdiction of Customs & Border Protection.

The closest thing this movie has to a villain is Stanley Tucci in the role of a CBP official at the airport angling to become "Field Commissioner" of CBP. This is a position that does not exist. I think he wants to be Port Director. Judging from the swank office he inhabits, he might already be the CEO of IBM. I have seen CBP offices at several ports of entry (although not JFK). Some are nicer than others. None is as nice as the one in this movie.

Navorsky spends his time learning English from cable news, collecting quarters from the luggage cart machine, and eating food stolen by airline food service workers. He also goes to the same cute CBP officer every day to see if she will stamp his visa application to let him into the country. All the while, he shuffles around the airport carrying a mysterious Planters nut can, making friends with the wacky airport employees, and doing major construction projects. Meanwhile, the evil Tucci character wants to get rid of him.

Guess what. None of this is interesting. Even the trumped up romance with flight attendant Katherine Zeta Jones goes nowhere. She thinks he is a frequent flyer who she just happens to see whenever she is at JFK. When they finally have a dinner date, she apparently goes home to change and does not think it is strange that she comes back to JFK to have dinner in the terminal building.

Here is the end of the movie, so either (1) stop reading or (2) consider this a favor. She rejects him for reasons that are not made entirely clear. His wacky friends come to his aid in a time of need. The nut can contains his father's priceless collection of jazz souvenirs. Navorsky has come to NY to get the one remaining element needed to complete the collection. So, of course, he carried all the others with him half way around the world in a nut can rather than leave them safely at home. He gets what he wants when a sympathetic CBP officer lets him walk out of the terminal illegally. The movie ends with the clear implication that he is an honest man who will now head back to the airport to go home where, luckily, peace has broken out.

There is only one chuckle in this movie. Navorsky gets in a NYC cab and says he needs to go the Ramada. The driver has a similar accent. He says he is from Albania and has been in NY "since Thursday." Its funny, I guess, because he is already driving a cab and knows where the Ramada is.

The worst technical point is when a Russian is stopped for trying to move prescription drugs from Canada through the U.S. back to Russia. The evil Tucci character wants to seize the medicine because the passenger does not have the proper forms. Navorsky is called in as an interpreter. Navorsky, who spends his days reading Customs forms, has apparently learned that medicine for animals is not subject to the same restrictions. Thus, rather than accurately translate that the drugs are for the guy's dying father, he says they are for a goat. Given this tremendously important piece of hearsay, the drugs are released to the happy passenger. Hanks should take the customsbroker test the next time it is offered.

So what worthwhile movies involve Customs? Here are a few. I've used the current definition of "Customs" to include the Border Patrol. If you think of any better examples, let me know.

1. Casablanca: Rick has papers from General De Gaul to get him across the border. That's close enough for me.

2. Flashpoint: Kris Kristoferson and Treat Williams are Border Patrol agents in Texas who find a skeleton and a box of money. Mayhem and conspiracies ensue.

3. Jackie Brown: The great Quentin's movie about a flight attendant who moves drugs from Mexico to LA. There is a great line where a DEA agent played by Michael Keaton threatens to turn her over to Customs. With a menacing look, he says something like "and you don't want to mess with those guys."

4. The Heist: This is a really good caper film written and directed by David Mamet. I am fighting my desire to begin swearing like a sailor. Gene Hackman needs to steal some gold from an airliner. At one point, one of his team cold cocks a Customs officer and at another point he announces that he needs a "customs broker and freight forwarder" he can trust.

5. The Score: This is essentially the same movie as The Heist but the Gene Hackman role went to Robert De Niro. Rather than rob an airliner, they have to steal an antique royal scepter from the Montreal Customhouse.

6. Men in Black: Giving new meaning to the phrase "illegal aliens."

7. Stripes: Because going to Czechoslovakia is like sneaking in and out of Wisconsin.


Anonymous said...

Gilbert Lee Sandler, Esq. put together pamphlet called "A Guide to the Movies for Customs & International Trade Professionals." It is even in glossy print. I picked my up at the bench & bar last year. It lists 56 movies; 1/2 of which I've never heard of.

Larry F. said...

Thanks for the reminder. I was at that meeting and Lee did us all a service. I found my list. I'll add two from his list that I am shocked I missed:

Usual Suspects: A great movie not only because the interrogation is by a Customs officer but also because it is probably the only movie in history to mention Skokie, Illinois more than one. As an aside, Skokie was mentioned once in Risky Business.

The Devil's Advocate: One of Satan's (Al Pacino) young associates is introduced as practicing customs and trade law.

James said...

I picked my up at the bench & bar last year. It lists 56 movies; 1/2 of which I've never heard of.

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