Let’s face it. Hollywood was remarkably restrained after 9/11. Few films tackled terrorism directly, and those that did engaged in moral relativism (Body of Lies ) or bent over backwards to include heroic Arab figures (The Kingdom).
But the film’s main storyline involves Moustafa’s unfair arrest while picking up a family member at the local airport. He temporarily loses his son in the crowd and starts to yell his name to find him.
“Muhammad! Muhammad!” he cries, unaware of how an Arab man screaming the name of his religion’s prophet might sound to a spooked populace. He’s detained by an FBI agent (given surprising depth by Ray Wise) who interrogates him, then sets him free.
The incident appears settled, but it comes back to haunt Moustafa just as he closes in on a deal to open a new, upscale Middle Eastern restaurant with his Jewish friend, played by Monk’s Tony Shalhoub.
And Moustafa isn’t the only character here who gets arrested before the movie’s end. If you believe AmericanEast, Arab-Americans routinely get arrested on little or no grounds. It’s part of the film’s bigger picture, that the U.S. — both the government and its citizens — have it in for Arab-Americans, guilty or innocent.
What’s missing here is what’s often absent from debates involving Arabs the world over — unmitigated anger toward the Islamic terrorists who are trashing their faith.
The film’s most egregious moment comes when Moustafa’s daughter tries to tell her friend the history of the Islamic faith. It’s an utterly one-sided look as Islam through the years that pins all the blame on those evil Westerners.
To be fair, the character telling this tale is smoking weed at the time.
AmericanEast scores points for depicting a wide spectrum of Arab characters, from the gentle Moustafa who sees the American dream as something tangible, to less agreeable types who get their conspiracy news from Al Jazeera. The film may be deeply flawed, but it’s still refreshing to see a culture depicted on screen that rarely gets a closeup, much like the moderately successful Bella showed us another side of the Latino experience.
The filmmakers behind AmericanEast are clearly are bursting to tell their stories, their side of the cultural debate. And that’s fine … to each filmmaker his own. But it might take a series of films to address them in a dramatically compelling fashion.
Instead, we get a film so stuffed with thoughts, propaganda, and, ultimately, harmony, that it feels more like a flawed academic exchange than a flesh and blood film.