John Powers

If any story has been inescapable this century, it's surely immigration. The subject has spawned so many newscasts, books, movies and TV shows that it takes real imagination to find an invigorating angle on such a well-worn and difficult theme.

In one of his many hymns to drinking, Charles Bukowski, that great bard of the barstool, explained the eternal promise of drunkenness. "It [takes] away the obvious," he wrote, "and maybe if you could get away from the obvious often enough, you wouldn't become obvious yourself."

I was maybe 12 when I first saw The Third Man, the noir classic set in a post-World War II Vienna bursting with expressionist atmospherics and jaunty amorality. Ever since, I've been drawn to tales set in the wake of historical turmoil. You get juicy stories when individuals — and whole societies — must deal with the guilts, losses and compromises they'd rather not think about.

There are scads of talented spy novelists, but the ones who matter capture something essential about their historical moment. Back in the 1930s and '40s, Eric Ambler nailed the sense of ordinary people being caught up in the machinations of great totalitarian powers. A few decades later, John le Carré caught the personal and moral ambiguities of what John F. Kennedy dubbed the "long twilight struggle" of the Cold War.

The history of film is inseparable from immigration. Newcomers to America didn't merely pack the nickelodeons and movie palaces, they invented Hollywood.