In spirit, The Terminal is a lot like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s last collaboration, Catch Me If You Can: a modestly light, engagingly anarchic comedy with an undercurrent of tragedy rooted in infidelity and domestic breakdown. The Terminal also gives Hanks another chance to do a put-on accent, and to be funnier than he’s been in a long time.
However, the seams are more obvious this time around. The story wobbles between plotlines and characters that make emotional sense and ones that don’t. And the climax (hastily rewritten and reshot mere weeks before opening day) is pretty much unsalvageable. In Spielberg and Hanks’s professional hands the whole package remains passably entertaining, but much of it doesn’t bear thinking about afterwards not because the premise is implausible, but because, granted the premise, characters do things that no one would, or should, do under those circumstances.
Loosely inspired by the true story of an Iranian refugee without documentation stranded for over a decade in a Paris airport, The Terminal hypothesizes a citizen of a tiny, fictional eastern European country whose government vanishes in a violent coup while he is en route to New York City. Viktor Navorski (Hanks) thus arrives in JFK Airport a citizen of no recognized country, with no valid passport or money, no legal documentation, status, or identity of any kind.
There seems to be no bureaucratically correct response to Viktor’s unique situation: no legal way to admit, deport, detain, or otherwise process him. He’s in limbo, and the boundaries of his world are the concrete and glass walls of the airport terminal.
To airport security, embodied in Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the ambitious acting security chief, Viktor’s circumstance is a daily nuisance. To Viktor, it’s his whole life.
In today’s post-9/11 world, this premise seems both charmingly naive and satirically topical. But Spielberg is more interested in feel-good comedy than social commentary, and so the story focuses less on Viktor’s bureaucratic predicament than on the mechanics of how he actually goes about the business of survival in the terminal as well as the people he meets there and the relationships he forms.
It’s a bit like Cast Away, except that for companionship there are real people instead of a volleyball and a photograph. The other difference is that where the point in Cast Away was in part how profoundly Hanks’s workaholic character was changed by his experiences, in The Terminal Viktor is already the most well-adjusted, centered character in the film, and the point isn’t how he changes or what he has to learn, but what he has to teach us.
There’s also a misguided subplot having to do with the reason for Viktor’s trip to New York, a personal mission that remains a secret for much of the film but seems to have something to do with a mysterious cannister that he carries around with him and sometimes kisses. The film has some creative tricks up its sleeve in this connection, but eventually missteps with phony drama threatening dire consequences for a number of supporting characters if Viktor attempts to complete his mission.
These consequences are so extreme and disproportionate that Viktor himself decides, reasonably and not terribly nobly given the stakes, that the mission isn’t worth the cost. But then a character makes a supposedly heartwarming sacrifice that, viewed rationally, seems inescapably misguided and even if we ignore that, what about the other characters who’ve been threatened over Viktor’s mission? Are we meant to conclude that the mission is worth their grief too? Are we not supposed to think about them?
Fortunately, the film is actually less interested in Viktor’s mission than in the relationships he forms along the way. Those whose lives he touches include an attractive flight attendant named Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a trio of airport employees, and a pretty INS agent (Zoe Saldana). Only the flight attendant comes and goes; the others, like Viktor, are permanent fixtures of terminal life, except that they go home at night.
Viktor’s initial encounters with these individuals are the sort of impersonal public interactions that occur between people whose paths are unlikely to cross again. Of course their paths do keep on crossing, though at least one, the flight attendant, doesn’t notice right away. On numerous occasions Viktor notices her meeting a man with whom she is obviously involved; later he learns that the man is otherwise married.
As with Frank Abagnale’s parents in Catch Me If You Can, there’s something tragic and self-destructive about Amelia, who repeatedly warns Viktor to stay away from her for his own good. Their slowly developing relationship is handled with restrait and emotional intelligence, and is the film’s emotional center.
Less well handled, unfortunately, is a secondary romantic subplot, which starts out lightly farcical before taking a startlingly cartoony and unpersuasive turn in its approach to love and even marriage. A climactic moment in this subplot is so unearned that it doesn’t work even as cornball romance; for a brief moment I actually found myself wondering whether I could have somehow missed a set of earlier interactions and conversations that would have set up what the scene asks us to accept.
Then there’s Frank Dixon, the ambitious acting security chief, on the verge of a big promotion. Naturally it goes without saying that at some point Dixon will face an all-important performance evaluation, and Viktor’s embarrassing presence at the airport will threaten to derail his promotion. (Actually, it doesn’t go without saying; there’s some clumsy dialogue heavy-handedly foreshadowing this inevitable scene.)
Still, Dixon starts off as a human being, and doesn’t begin to go off the rails until about midway through the film. The first sign of trouble is a strange, contrived scene with Dixon roughing up Viktor over a photocopier. Tucci is a chameleonic actor and is capable of projecting menace (as he did in TV’s Murder One), but he failed to sell me on the idea of Dixon assaulting anyone, no matter how exasperated or angry he might be.
Over time, Dixon’s understandable annoyance at Viktor’s situation turns gradually into obsession, and finally becomes an all-out vendetta that he is willing to take to bizarrely vindictive lengths, leading to the phony dilemma mentioned above, and giving several characters an opportunity to flout Dixon’s authority and stand up for what they believe in, or something. By the end of the film, Dixon’s character makes no sense at all; he’s a plot device rather than a real character.
What helps carry the film in spite of these difficulties is Hanks’ performance and Spielberg’s expert direction. As familiar as he is to all moviegoers, Hanks still manages to sell us on his character’s ethnicity and heritage, accent and all. After the first ten minutes or so, it isn’t even distracting; I wasn’t thinking Here is Tom Hanks putting on a Ruski accent, I simply accepted the character. (A nice touch: At one point Viktor crosses himself in prayer, Eastern fashion, right to left.)
Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski make the most of their stupendous set, which is neither a real location nor a series of sound stages, but a giant replica built in the Palmdale desert. Of particular note is the use of all the airport’s glass; trailers have already shown off the delightful shot of Viktor looking at his reflection in the clothing-store window, his reflected head superimposed on the suited mannequins, but one of my favorite moments is another shot of Viktor and Amalia conversing in a bookstore, photographed through yellow-tinted glass.
What I like about this shot is the absence of what has become a familiar effect, the push-through. Thanks to computers and other techniques, movie cameras have been freed from all physical restraints, and are able to drift through windows, TV screens, mirrored surfaces, anything the filmmaker fancies. (A early instance of this technique was pioneered in Citizen Kane; a recent example can be found in the Boggart scene in the new Harry Potter movie.)
Watching this scene, as the camera closes in on Viktor and Amelia, still seen through yellow glass, I more than half expected a computerized color shift signifying the moment the camera pushed through the window. But it never came the camera stayed behind the glass, underscoring the reality of the physical barrier, and by extension of the terminal as a whole. It’s a small thing, but it resonates with the sense in which the terminal itself is a kind of barrier or obstacle for Navorski, and perhaps also with the sense of other barriers and obstacles in the story that can’t, or shouldn’t, be breached.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.