Movies: Sam Mendes' Mythic America

For a man who has given orders to the likes of Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, Sam Mendes hardly cuts an imposing figure. The soft-spoken, moon-faced Englishman who directed Road to Perdition and American Beauty, which won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, is more Cambridge humanities lecturer than drill sergeant: he pays attention to his actors' needs. "Tom is freer in front of the camera, wants to improvise more," Mendes explains. "Paul needs to be more precise, to know exactly what you want." Neither man seems a natural choice for the hard-boiled '30s gangsters they play in Perdition, but Mendes...

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