Joe Versus the Volcano (Shanley, 1990)

Long before Office Space, John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano tackled the monotonous horrors of the workplace, the rhythms and patterns of occupational degradation, to preface a hero’s journey toward enlightenment. In Joe’s (Tom Hanks) case, the maddening corporate workplace turns a once courageous firefighter into a sniveling hypochondriac convinced he’s dying of cancer.

The credit sequence and opening scenes are straight out of every working man’s nightmare; fluorescent lights droning from above, toxic lumpy coffee, a boss repeating conversations over and over again, and a windowless lair ripe for suffocation. This makes Milton’s dank basement office seem like a sunny day at the park. The following narrative can only be described as odd – Joe gets diagnosed with a Brain cloud, terminal of course, finding a new lease on life, then gets convinced by a tycoon (Lloyd Bridges) to live out his remaining days in style and sacrifice himself to a South Pacific volcano so that the company can gain mining rights from the natives (led by Nathan Lane and Abe Vigoda).

Joe Versus the Volcano is a singular vision, a Romance of class manipulation, second chances, and love at third sight (Meg Ryan plays three very different women). The sublime and strange characters live in a disturbingly familiar not-so-distant future, where honest to goodness valor gets perverted so the rich can get richer and the poor can sit idly by and await death. Joe transcends this murky and stagnant life by staring mortality in the face and smiling confidently.

Charlie Wilson’s War (Nichols, 2007)

Mike Nichols’ problematic and exciting treatment of Congressman Charles Wilson, who single handily helped fund the Afghan Mujahideen against the invading Russians in the 1980’s, is the kind of historical revisionism Hollywood loves – heavy on dramatic weight and light on History. But the film has an energy (mainly due to the first rate performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a smarmy and dedicated C.I.A. agent) that’s hard to deny, even when the screenplay and direction seem overt and preachy. Hoffman and Tom Hanks (as Wilson) share a haunting final scene where the disgruntled spy tells the big wig politician of the impending extremism rising up in Afghanistan. The writing of terrorism is on the wall, but the American Government seems too busy celebrating its momentary victory to foresee the horrors to come.