Sitting in limbo
The Terminal, Tom Hanks’ third film for director Steven Spielberg, is just as breezy and marshmallow-soft as 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. Spielberg and company are again sort of caught blowing bubbles here as scenes dance across the screen in gentle waves and disappear in frothy, effervescent pops. The script feels as shallow as it is lighthearted. But this contemporary fable, of a foreign visitor literally camped out for nine months in the international-transit lounge of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport as 600 planes arrive daily from all over the globe, was amusing enough to keep me entertained for more than two hours.
The story is point-blank Frank Capra—one common man can make a difference in this world—supported by a revolving panorama of colorful, Damon Runyon-esque characters. Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at the airport from the fictitious country of Krakozhia, a Slavic neighbor to Russia, just as a violent coup erupts in his homeland. American officials no longer recognize the country as a sovereign state, so Navorski is pulled from his arrival line into the on-site Homeland Security office.
Field commissioner Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), strictly playing by the book, interviews the English-challenged Viktor, cancels his visa and confiscates his passport. Viktor is told that he is temporarily a man without a country and must not step outside the airport doors until further notice, or he will be arrested. Dixon arms Navorski with several food vouchers, a pager and a phone card. As days bleed into weeks, and weeks into months, Navorski turns into an involuntary squatter. He turns an area near Gate 67 into a crude bedroom, parades to the restroom in his robe for sink baths, gets to know the airport’s blue-collar workers, literally works his way into a construction job and becomes romantically attracted to flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
The Terminal works best when it sticks to its loosely knit comic episodes, such as a poker game with stakes lifted from the airport’s lost-and-found room. We are gradually fed the reason for Navorski’s visit to the Untied States, as the bureaucratic glitch not only keeps him prisoner in alien surroundings, but also frustrates Dixon and jeopardizes his upcoming promotion.
The subplot of Navorski playing a go-between Cyrano for a food-services worker (Y tu mamá también’s Diego Luna), who is enamored with an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent (Drumline’s Zoe Saldana), is fun at first. And Navorski’s budding relationship with Amelia, who is having an affair with a married man (anyone remember Flashdance’s Michael Nouri?), feels like it is going to tie the film together with a thin dramatic thread. But both affairs of the heart are clumsily handled and much too abruptly resolved.
The characters on parade include an elderly East Indian janitor (Kumar Pallana, who debuted in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket) who passes time by watching travelers slip on his freshly mopped floors, and a baggage handler (Chi McBride) who is not afraid to take a stand against misguided authority. The three-story set, built in a Palmdale hangar, is a producer’s wet dream of product placement, including a Burger King, a Sbarro, a Borders and a Starbucks.
The message of the film is that sometimes you have to ignore the rules and concentrate more on the people in a situation. It is a valentine to compassion and the heroism of an un-extraordinary person adrift in extraordinary circumstances. It’s a tale of people with frozen jobs and lives who find a purpose for their visit here on Earth by interacting with each other, and a tale of people who are toxic to those attracted to them.
The primary money shot for Spielberg here is a close-up of Navorski that slowly zooms back to articulate the man’s isolation and loneliness amid a sea of hurried travelers. The film’s Eastern European-styled soundtrack, featuring clarinet and accordion, complements the comic tone of the picture, and Catch Me’s cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, and editor, Michael Kahn, join Spielberg on this project.
The film is rated PG-13 for mild profanity and brief references to sex and drug use. In the press notes, Spielberg says he wanted to do something to make us smile. That he has. I only wish that his attempts to make us think and feel had worked better, too.