Posts Tagged ‘The Terminal’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 9th 2004:

One of cinema’s master entertainers returns with The Terminal, Steven Spielberg’s theoretically-based-on-a-true-story statement on American national security issues and the nature of modern life. Or so he claims. This is the story of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a traveller from the obscure eastern European land of Krakhozia (if you’re wondering, it shares borders with Latveria and Markovia) who arrives at New York’s JFK airport on important personal business.

Unfortunately while he was on the way a coup has occurred in his homeland and the visa letting him into the USA has been withdrawn. On the other hand, the new government in Krakozhia has closed the borders and airports so he can’t go back there either. This effectively means he is stranded in the airport departure lounge, a man without a country, until the situation resolves itself. The presence of this piece of human driftwood is inevitably anathema to the career-minded airport administrator Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) who is quite prepared to let Viktor become someone else’s problem if it means getting him out of the terminal.

But Viktor is a principled man who is not prepared to simply slope off out of the airport illegally the first chance he gets. Mainly through his own ingenuity he teaches himself English, gets a rather good job renovating the airport and establishes a circle of friends amongst the airport staff. He even has time to develop a bit of a thing for air stewardess Amelia (Catherine Zeta Jones, a Hollywood leading lady making history by playing a character older than herself). But what exactly has he come to America to do? And will they ever let him out of the terminal so he can actually get on with it?

Well, you could disapprove of The Terminal on principle for its ruthless hijacking and prettying up of the rather sad story of Merhan Nasseri, a mentally fragile Iranian refugee who’s been living in a French airport for the last sixteen years, but you must have been living down a hole if you seriously expect a Spielberg movie to stick to reality rather than going for an artful sugar-rush of sentiment. To be fair, the film opens in surprisingly downbeat and naturalistic style – there’s no big title sequence, no music in the early part of the movie, and it’s shot in realistic colours. This opening segment is rather impressively low-key, even if the exact circumstances confining Hanks to the airport concourse seem a bit contrived. But as the film goes on it almost imperceptibly slopes off into the familiar feel-good la-la land, until John Williams is tootling and parping cheerfully away on the soundtrack, the cinematography is drenched in sunny warmth and the story’s going all-out to make you laugh.

To be fair the movie does this rather well. Hanks gives a very impressively non-sentimental performance in a rather tricky part: he doesn’t overdo the role in any of the ways lesser talents might, keeping the foreign accent and the innocent abroad aspects well under control. It’s very accomplished turn, mixing pathos with broad comedy, and you actually believe that this is a man who would choose to sit in an airport for months on end simply because it’s the correct way to behave. He’s well supported by a ensemble cast of unfamiliar faces, and Tucci makes a villain both hissable and mildly empathetic. Zeta Jones’ character is a bit one-dimensional though, and she seems a bit lost for things to do with it.

Spielberg himself seems a bit lost for things to do with this movie, other than go for gentle comedy. The appeal of making what’s basically a high-concept formal exercise is obvious, and there’s potential here for the film to say things about modern life and modern America, but (clearly realising he’s potentially kicking a wasp’s nest here) Spielberg invariably opts for the most general and vague approach. He neither endorses or condemns current American policy on immigration, or anything else. This is one of those films that raises issues but has nothing to say about them, with the result that it seems a bit shallow and tokenistic. Well, all right, it does subtly point out that the low-paid airport underclass that eventually adopts Hanks is almost entirely comprised of members of ethnic minorities, but Michael Moore this ain’t.

But then again neither does it try (or, I suspect, want) to be. It’s just a slick, witty, fairly warm piece of entertainment, powered along by Spielberg’s unsurpassed technical mastery, Hanks’ undoubted charisma, and a mostly-ingenious script that seems to have been written by someone hiding an impressive knowledge of cult TV. But in the end it seems just a bit too disposably superficial. Very enjoyable while it lasts, make no mistake about that, but nowhere near the best of Spielberg’s work.

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