The Terminal is not your typical Steven Spielberg film. The director has, in the past, quite famously tackled science-fiction with E.T. and Minority Report among others. He has made powerful historical epics like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Amistad. He has even done comedy, sometimes successfully (Catch Me If You Can), sometimes not (1941). What Spielberg hasn’t done a lot of is character study. The Terminal changes that. The movie is largely an examination of one man – who he is, how he adapts to challenges, and how he affects those around him. Not surprisingly, Spielberg applies his so-called “magic touch” to the picture and produces something genuinely charming and sweet.
Tom Hanks stars as Viktor Navorski, who hails from the fictional country of Krakozhia. While on a plane bound for America, there is a military coup in his country. Viktor only learns of the incident when he arrives at the airport in New York. The airport’s Homeland Security agent, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), informs him that he can’t go home, as transportation to the war-torn country has been temporarily suspended. Also, because the new regime there has not been formally recognized, the U.S. government has suspended Navorski’s visa, which means he can’t legally enter the United States. He has to wait inside the airport terminal until something breaks. (This turns out to be months.)
Initially, Dixon gives Viktor some vouchers for the food court, but these don’t last long. Krakozhian money is no good, so he has to find ways of earning cash within the airport terminal. After coming up with a clever (and very funny) plan, Viktor is at least able to get a sandwich at Burger King. On the occasions when he can’t get money, he has to eat condiments collected from the various restaurants. Viktor eventually starts to befriend some of the airport staff, including a young food service employee (Diego Luna). In exchange for free meals, Viktor helps the young man woo a female INS agent (Zoe Saldana).
Other than Dixon, the most important person Viktor meets is a flight attendant named Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She’s got relationship problems out the ears, her most recent being the fact that she’s dating a married man and rooting for him to go back to his wife. Amelia strikes up a friendship with Viktor that leads to romance – or as much of a romance as one can have in an airport.
As I said, The Terminal is mostly about Viktor Navorski. Somehow, this funny little man inspires everyone who comes in contact with him. This is because no matter how dire his situation, he clings to the belief that he will eventually walk out those doors and into America. When I first saw the previews, I was a little dubious of the accent Tom Hanks uses. I feared this would be one of those movies where the star does a wacky accent and nothing else. Thankfully, Hanks finds the man inside. He gives Viktor a scrappiness that the other characters – and the audience – come to admire. Nothing stops him. When he hits an obstacle, he simply finds a way around it. Many of the biggest laughs come from his dogged ingenuity.
The supporting characters are interesting too. Frank Dixon is, for all intents and purposes, the nemesis here, but he’s not one-dimensional. At some level, he sympathizes with Viktor’s plight, yet at the same time his solution is to trick Viktor into leaving the airport so that the problem ends up in someone else’s lap. (He’s up for a promotion and doesn’t want the situation ruining his chances.) Stanley Tucci is superb in the role, playing Dixon as sleazy enough not to like but decent enough not to hate. He has two key scenes. In one, he explains the situation in Krakozhia to Viktor using a bag of potato chips and an apple. It’s one of the biggest laughs I’ve had at the movies all year. In the other, Dixon attempts to assert his authority and in the process oversteps a fundamental line of humanity. I loved the way the film found time to show the dichotomies in this character.
The Amelia character is interesting as well. She’s a cliché, but the thing that keeps her from being a real cliché is that she knows she’s a cliché. The idea of a romantically mixed-up but basically kind female has been done in movies before. Amelia, on the other hand, verbally expresses an awareness of how dysfunctional she is in the romance department. This makes her more interesting. Catherine Zeta-Jones gives a performance that may be misunderstood by some, but I thought she was very good. Amelia is smart enough to know what her problem is, but not smart enough to do anything about it.
I’ll be the first to admit that The Terminal is very contrived. They have to keep finding ways to keep Viktor in that airport. Some of them stretch credibility, as does the resolution of Viktor’s matchmaking. But you know what? I didn’t care. Steven Spielberg is a master storyteller and he makes the movie so darned entertaining that its contrivances don’t matter. From the beginning, we get swept up in Viktor’s plight. We laugh at his unorthodox solutions to problems. We empathize with his desire to either enter America or go back home. We care about where he ultimately ends up. This character – so well played by Tom Hanks – gives The Terminal a through-line that kept me hooked from start to finish.
There’s a running mystery about Viktor’s reasons for coming to America. As the film approached the two-hour mark, the secret was finally revealed. I initially hoped that the story wouldn’t follow him beyond that point; I didn’t want to see the film stretched out to the point where it might become draggy or labored. Spielberg does, in fact, show us Viktor’s reason for coming, but he handles it in five minutes rather than twenty, and it works. The scene provides a satisfying coda for a movie that already had me feeling good inside.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Terminal is rated PG-13 for brief language and drug references. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.
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