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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Moscow on the Hudson through Fresh Eyes

It has been a long time since I saw Moscow on the Hudson--probably since I was in high school--but I remember liking the movie. Netflix, one of my new bestest friends, streamed the movie into my home tonight and looking at it is a little like looking back into a time capsule. In some ways, it is also like looking at a better version of America.

For those who don’t remember, the movie is about a Russian musician (Robin Williams) who defects in a Bloomingdales in New York City. It follows him from Moscow, through his defection, and through learning to live in America. It isn’t a completely easy journey for him and it shows both him and his adopted country with warts and foibles and a bit of complexity.

With all the references to the old USSR, KGB, and the Reagan presidency, it is a look at a world that doesn’t exist any longer--it excites some of the same nostalgia bursts as Red Dawn without the campy overtones. But if you look past that little, gentle nostalgia, there are also some wonderful moments in watching the immigrants’ journey that put me in mind of an America that lives mostly in my hopes and may never have been entirely real. It glorifies hard work and opportunity over government handouts, it despises hyphenated allegiances at the cost of an American identity, and, in the end, it praises, if you’ll pardon me, the spiritual necessity of liberty over the state-controlled and, theoretically, perfectible society.

Two scenes really stand out to me. First, early in the movie, the immigrant watches a room full of new citizens taking the oath of citizenship. It is very quietly affecting as the judge gives her statement before administering the oath: “Today you will become citizens of the United States of America. No longer are you an Englishman, Italian, a Pole or whatever, neither will you be a hyphenated American. From this day you are no longer a subject of a governement, but an intergal part of the government, a free man.”

Then, nearer the end, when William’s character has suffered an assault and he is questioning the value of freedom when liberty is put to particularly dark purpose, he is reminded by a diner populated mostly by immigrants (a Cuban, another Russian, a Chinese man, and the American server) of the words of the Declaration of Independence. And while, as a scene in a movie it feels almost glib and you would be forgiven for wondering how such a moment might have calmed the anger Williams was showing, I can’t help but enjoy watching these folks extolling the virtues of freedom.

It’s no great movie. The character’s transition, for all the difficulties, still comes too easy. Too scripted. It also makes the emotional choices a little too simple for Williams giving a relatively tidy ending where some of the reality is bound to be messier. Still, I enjoyed it and have to say that a few of the performances are remarkably good. Williams, himself, is wonderful. He’s a good deal better than the script and he gives the whole thing more gravity than it might deserve.

More than anything, though, it was like a visit with an old friend. Not challenging, not new, but warm and comfortable.

Moving from there to Every Which Way but Loose, is particularly strange, though. Time has done precisely nothing to make Sandra Locke’s singing any easier to stomach…

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