Terminal, The (2004): Sentimental Spielberg Saga, Starring Tom Hanks

It’s always a risk to set an entire film within a single, claustrophobic setting, which is what Spielberg has done in his new “serious” comedy, The Terminal.
I don’t want to suggest that The Terminal is punitive to its audiences in the way that other single-set movies have been, but it presents a major challenge that even a filmmaker of Spielberg’s caliber and facility barely overcomes.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

The film comes across not so much as a quintessential Spielberg film but as a star vehicle for Tom Hanks. Over the past three years, Hanks, America’s favorite son and specialist in white bread Americana, has been eager to stretch as an actor in ways avoided for most of his career. This is Hanks’ third movie in a row in which he deviates from his more established heroic screen image. It began with Road to Perdition, in which he played a hit man, continued with The Ladykillers (one of the worst Coen brothers movies), in which he was cast as the head of a gang about to rob a casino, and now The Terminal, in which he plays a heavy-accented Eastern European immigrant.

The Ladykillers may become known in Hollywood as the film that broke Hanks’ string of seven straight $100 million movies, an impressive, lineup that including Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and Castaway. In contrast, The Terminal is one of Spielberg’s less commercial films and is unlikely to hit the magic mark of $100 million.

A minor film for both Hanks the star and Spielberg the director, The Terminal is no more than a footnote in their rich and diverse careers. Above all, it demonstrates the anxiety of a highly accomplished director in choosing the right subject matter to match his talent.

A valentine to the American immigrant experience, The Terminal echoes such cheerful immigrant comedies as From Moscow to Hudson, with Robin Williams. Though inspired by the real-life story of expatriate Iranian Merhan Karimi Nessari (who in 1988 took refuge in Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport), only the first five minutes are grounded in any recognizable reality.

Viktor Navorski (Hanks) is a visitor from Eastern Europe, whose (fictional) homeland erupts in a political coup while he in the air en route to New York City. Stranded at Kennedy Airport, with a valueless passport, he is confronted with a cruel official named Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who considers him a bureaucratic glitch, a problem he can’t control but wants desperately to erase.

Most of the tale deals with Viktor’s survival in his new compressed universe. What begins as a few days imprisonment stretches into weeks and months. Fortunately, as a locale, the terminal turns out to be more complex and colorful than Viktor–or the audience–had expected. Soon, Viktor becomes part of a minorities community, sort of America’s wishful melting pot.

Included in Viktor’s extended airport family are Joe Mulroy (Chi McBride), the baggage handler and natural born leader; Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna), the food service worker who uses his job to strike a deal with Viktor; Gupta (Kumar Pallana), the janitor whose cart is his private domain and who has a unique way of exercising his authority; and Ray Thurman (Barry Shabaka Henley) and Dolores Torres (Zoe Saldana), as Customs and Immigration Officers who sympathize with Viktor’s plight but lack the power to help.

As cinematic locales, airports are not as romantic settings as train stations, yet they can be fascinating sites for the display of high emotions, with intense reunions and farewells.

Not to neglect the romantic angle (the film’s weakest aspect), the writers have come up with a charming flight attendant named Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a confused woman with a penchant for affairs with married men. The two begin to date, though Viktor is so shy that he hardly can touch her. Theirs is a platonic relationship based on respect. Since Viktor is a single, middle-aged man, his shyness doesn’t make much sense.

A key to understanding the film is that it’s based on a story written by Andrew Niccol, who also penned The Truman Show. There are thematic similarities between the two films, both of which center on a white male who finds himself a prisoner. While in Truman Show, Jim Carrey is trapped in a soundstage, Hanks is stuck inside an airport terminal. Both milieux are hermetically sealed and artificially controlled. Both settings are metaphoric: They are meant to represent a microcosm of the outside world with a cross-section of humanity parading through.

For Spielberg, better known as a chronicler of white middle-class suburbia, the novelty may be in paying tribute to the multi-cultural world that has come to define American society. The airport’s mini-mall populates religious Jews, Hari Krishnas, stuffy shirts, Japanese tourists, and so on.

Though The Terminal is a film about the small, meaningful moments of human interaction, the film doesn’t really explore the more profound yet ironic notion that an immigrant who’s denied experiencing the American Way of Life in the real outside world gets to experience it while enclosed inside. Viktor gets a glimpse of the American Dream while imprisoned in a terminal, a place most people dread now a days.

Ultimately, The Terminal is Spielberg’s homage to 1930s Depression movies, screwball comedies and Capraesque fables about the “little” people, ordinary men who are resourceful enough to beat the system. Moreover, the big date scene, in which Viktor and Amelia dine, recalls romantic comedies of the 1930s, though it’s not as witty or erotic as any of its predecessors.

The Terminal might sound as utterly inconsequential, but it’s not. It’s actually a personal film with thematic links to Spielberg’s previous work. As the outsider, Viktor adopts the American Way of Life, and in the process shows the other characters (and the audiences) that the American Dream, though tarnished, is still viable.

There are also family touches, such as father-son relationships, that recur in most of Spielberg’s films. At the end of the saga, Viktor explains a promise he had made to his father to go to New York and visit its jazz clubs, a family tradition that passes from one generation to the next and must be kept that way.

In the hands of another director, The Terminal would have been an insufferably sentimental film, but Spielberg technical faculties and light touch and his fluency with moving his actors and cameras make the picture perfectly watchable and intermittently even enjoyable.

Spielberg’s Motivation:

The Terminal is based on the kinds of anxieties experienced by most people while missing their flights or getting stuck in airport terminal. Says Spielberg: “I don’t know anyone who at one point hasn’t spent longer sitting in an airport chair than on the airplane ride itself.”

After Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg wanted to do “another movie that could make you laugh and cry and feel good about the world. This is a time when we need to smile more, and Hollywood movies are supposed to do that for people in difficult time.” In other words, Spielberg embraces the escapist function of movies, enabling people to momentarily forget their troubles–just as Hollywood movies of the Depression era did.