A Hologram for the King (2016)

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I am not exactly sure why I loved A Hologram for the King – but one thing is for sure, it was a fantastic film, and one I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did. Considering what an utter disappointment the similarly-themed Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was, I was hesitant about the entire “American goes to the Middle East and learns a lot about their culture” storyline, but A Hologram for the King was surprisingly brilliant, for a variety of reasons.

A Hologram for the King sees washed-up businessman Alan Clay (the ever-reliable and absolutely iconic Tom Hanks) arriving in Saudi Arabia. He is there with his IT company to try and see a holographic telecommunications system to the King of Saudi Arabia. While in Saudi Arabia, Alan encounters several problems, and he discovers that he was in store for quite a culture shock, because it is clear that things are done quite differently in Saudi Arabia – but perhaps that was exactly what Alan was looking for – an escape from the mundane and vicious culture of the USA, and rather his place was elsewhere, in a culture that seems to appreciate some of the more subtle aspects of life. A Hologram for the King neither promotes nor bashes the culture of Saudi Arabia, nor does it look upon the country with anything other than respect – and while I am sure there are some issues with representation in this film (one such I will discuss a bit later on, but it is one that pervades so many of these kinds of films still to this day).

There isn’t much to A Hologram for the King – quite simply, Hanks plays a businessman who arrives in the desert. This is a very simplistic premise, and sets the stage for something far more meaningful and interesting, and by having a relatively blank canvass, the film is able to place our protagonist in situations and locations where we are able to explore the country with him. In a way, A Hologram for the King feels a bit like a travel agency advertisement for Saudi Arabia, showing the side of the country that many people may not be aware of, but will want to visit after seeing this film – personally, I consider myself someone with a keen interest in other cultures, and A Hologram for the King showed me a side of Saudi Arabia I don’t often get to see. It is bizarre to be praising an American film for showing the side of a country is a completely different culture than its creators, but judging by the fact that this film hasn’t been completely boycotted, I would assume it isn’t completely inaccurate. Considering quite a few films have been produced, showing the region of Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, I haven’t seen one quite as bizarre as A Hologram for the King, and that is definitely something that works in its favour – it doesn’t try and be anything other than what it is, a quirky and strange little film about an adventure in a distant land, and all the better that the culture is positively shown, and there isn’t the bilateral “good vs. evil” debate that many films where someone visits a completely different country displays.

A Hologram for the King is most certainly not perfect, but it is far better than many similar films. I will compare it to the recent Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, quite possibly one of the worst films of the year, and much like A Hologram for the King, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sees an American going to the Middle East. A Hologram for the King is better on nearly every single account – but I noticed one very disturbing thread throughout both films – the blatant whitewashing that occurs in both of these films. I am not sure if Hollywood has really gotten the memo, but the Middle East does contain many non-white individuals, and while I am certainly not someone who boycotts films over this, I do find it unbelievably disappointing and very depressing that both films (and many others) unfortunately still do this. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Christopher Abbott and Alfred Molina play Afghan men, and one could say that they were cast because they were somewhat famous (Abbott as a rising star in independent film, while Alfred Molina is a dedicated and hard-working character actor) – but that isn’t much of an excuse. In A Hologram for the King, Alexander Black plays Yousef, the friendly and upbeat “hero” to Hanks’ character. The role of Yousef is perhaps the very best part of the film – he’s a funny, wonderfully interesting character. Unlike nearly every non-white character in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, he is actually well-developed and interesting – and unfortunately, it is just depressing when you consider he was played by a white actor. This isn’t to say Alexander Black is to be blamed for it – I was actually convinced that he was indeed from Saudi Arabia, until I discovered he wasn’t. This just makes me a little angry – if they put in so much effort to make the character appear authentic, why not just cast someone who actually fits the role? I can think of quite a few actors working today that I think could have greatly improved visibility with a film like this, and I have no doubt that there are thousands of actors who could have done the part better and improved representation in Hollywood. The fact that they cast an virtual unknown in the role makes me think they were just lazy in casting, because if they really looked, they would be able to find someone who would have greatly benefitted from this role – and the role of Yousef is not stereotypical or negative in any way, and Black stole the show. I just wish the casting was a bit more accurate.

A Hologram for the King is a film with way more positives than negatives, and putting the casting problems to one side, we should consider that this film is actually brilliantly made. Tom Tykwer is a filmmaker with an unusually vivid flair for visuals, and while I never expected him to make a film like A Hologram for the King, it actually proved to be perfect for his style – he makes Saudi Arabia look both earthly and otherworldly, using beautiful shots and some strangely effervescent cinematography to capture the country in a way that isn’t cliched. I think Tykwer has created a film that isn’t flashy, but is still visually stunning. There is just something there that makes it deeply profound (but not in a pretentious Terrence Malick way). It is the type of subtle directorial achievement that isn’t seen very often anymore, nor is it ever highly praised, but it is solid, and I can’t wait for the moment Marvel (or another big studio) lines him up to direct a major blockbuster – he did try with Cloud Atlas, but I can only imagine what Tykwer would do with a major property. I could easily see him taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe somewhere dark and interesting, much like Christopher Nolan did with his Dark Knight Trilogy.

A Hologram for the King is a wonderful film. It has its issues, but other than that, it is a delightful and fun little film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it manages to find some meaning in some small and intricate factors. I think overall it is one of the best films of the year, but considering we have still quite a bit to go, with some major releases in the coming months, I expect A Hologram for the King to become lost in the shuffle. However, I do hope people do watch it, because it is a great film and one that I think deserves to be watched, but only because of how it shows Saudi Arabia in a very different light. I do think it is a great film, and I’m hoping it can stay as one of my favorites of the year, because it really deserves to.

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