The Middle East has served as a great backdrop for so many Western films because it is a world so alien to that which most Westerners have experienced. Dave Eggers’ novel A Hologram for the King is another such story, although it uses the Arabian desert to symbolize both the cultural and economic divides between East and West. Set in 2010, it explores the uncomfortable new waters in which United States businesses found themselves, reeling in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of Eggers’ novel highlights that “otherness” of the culture and economy of Saudi Arabia, as seen through the eyes of a man who’s lost nearly everything.
Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) works for Relyand, an IT company hoping to provide holographic communications for a massive planned city on the banks of the Red Sea. It isn’t until Alan and his team arrive at the “Kings Metropolis of Economy and Trade” (KMET, the locals call it) that they learn the city has a long way to go. The shimmering megalopolis the Saudi King envisions barely has any existing buildings – it’s more of a collection of administrative buildings constructed on an empty desert coastline. Alan finds himself consistently stymied in his attempts to get more information, find someone in charge, or get any idea of when the King will arrive for Relyand’s presentation. With a messy divorce and dwindling finances at home, Alan finds small relief in friendship with Yousef (Alexander Black), his driver, and a sympathetic doctor (Sarita Choudhury).
Although the story itself isn’t inherently self-propulsive, Tykwer’s energetic direction gives the film a substantial driving force. His camera is almost always moving, giving momentum to Alan’s plight, even though he spends so much of the film waiting for something to happen. Alan’s status as a stranger in a strange land is brought into sharp focus. We feel how strange these circumstances are to him, as much as he tries to wear the mask of the “in-control American.” Tykwer even highlights the otherness by occasionally dipping into the absurd – right from the odd video game-esque, Talking Heads-inspired opening. Hanks, whose love of the novel was a strong impetus for its film adaptation, unsurprisingly gives the film’s strongest performance. Alan is a mess of neuroses and visions of a better past, and Hanks brings to life all the emotions encapsulated therein. And who better to cast as a metaphor for the decline of American Empire?
While the book’s central focus is on Alan as a synecdoche of dwindling American economy, the film tends more towards empathizing with Alan’s alienation. The economic repercussions are still important. It’s revealed that while Alan worked for Schwinn bicycles, he was a driving force in moving production to China. It was cheaper, at first, but ended up hurting the company in the long run. Now Relyand is one of many U.S. businesses having to fight to maintain their financial bases at home. Misguided and often culturally regressive as it may seem, Saudi Arabia is where the new money is, and Alan is used to being the man calling the shots, not the one begging for a place at the table. As salient as this message still is in the film, the third act becomes more about Alan finding hope in this new landscape, about bridging cultural gaps and living outside his comfort zone. The message is uplifting, but maybe too saccharine. It’s a definite departure from Eggers’ novel, which has a much starker conclusion.
It is bothersome that the film feels a need to mitigate Alan’s larger problems by showing that he still can connect with people, one on one. It’s nice, but his weakness in the face of financial ruin is a more powerful angle. To suggest that he can throw his old life away and go with the flow in this amazing new world overly mythicizes Saudi Arabia, and undercuts the idea of American decline. Embracing new and unfamiliar cultures is all well and good, but at times the film falls into that trap of suggesting that a new perspective is all we need to escape our troubles. In reality, there’s a lot looming over Alan that’s not going away. In reality he doesn’t have an easy way out; audiences shouldn’t either.
If you’re looking for a story that wonders what Americans are supposed to do when they’re not on top of the world anymore, you will get more out of the novel. If you’d prefer a story that shows how one man decides to cope when he loses control, then the movie is more for you. Both have their merits, and while I may take issue with some of the thematic decisions in Tykwer’s adaptation, it is still an engaging, thoughtful film, bolstered by a fine lead performance from Hanks.