"The disappearing frontier is the most powerful and persistent myth in American history," Garry Wills writes in "John Wayne's America." His point is that John Wayne, the ultimate American myth, was the invincible hero whose authority grew out of his masculine self-reliance, whether summoning battlefield courage on the sands of Iwo Jima or true grit in struggling against outlaws and rattlesnakes. We knew we could depend on the man in the myth to protect us as we extended the frontier. The mythmaker's manhood epitomized America's strength, his confidence and how his competence with the gun defeated all enemies. The beliefs of the man in the myth were the politics of large meaning, not of little policies. They were the virtues of toughness, patriotism, self-reliance and responsibility, virtues that are disappearing from the American landscape.
The new frontier is global, and there is no longer a man in the myth, not even an actor pretending for a couple of hours in a darkened theater to animate the myth. Tom Hanks tries, as Captain Phillips setting out from his rural Vermont home to take command of his ship in Oman, bound for Mombassa. He frets that the America he grew up in won't offer his son the opportunities he had. When he tells the pirates that his cargo includes food for Africans, it reinforces the irony of the pirates' misbegotten adventure, but it brings no cheers from anyone.
Sandra Bullock, as the inventor dispatched to install new imaging software in space, is no red, white and blue Wonder Woman. Once she loses the reassuring voice of Houston Control and the silence closes in, she must call on everything within her, psychic as well as physical strength, to find her way home alone.
Broken technology, failing instruments and the loss of communication are villainous reminders that we are all at the mercy of human intelligence, the most fallible intelligence of all, bereft of the familiar and the reassuring. What could be scarier than George Clooney's -- as another astronaut -- sardonic observation that "half of North America just lost Facebook"? Happy Halloween, indeed.