Can a movie about a person stuck in an airport for nine months be entertaining or compelling? In the hands of pros like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks it can be surprisingly entertaining, even as it ultimately proves less than compelling.
The Terminal is based loosely around the real-life story of an Iranian man who was trapped by a bureaucratic snafu at Charles DeGaulle Airport outside Paris, and then simply refused to leave once he was cleared. Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a traveler from the fictional country of Krakhozia, who learns upon landing at JFK in New York that a civil war at home has put a serious crimp in his visa plans. Unable to enter America and unable to return home, Viktor goes about building a temporary new life for himself inside the airport.
Tom Hanks used to be our top comic actor, but as he took on dramatic roles and the Oscars began flowing he appeared to be trying so hard he might crack. The middle-aged Hanks has eased up though, much to
our benefit. I thought his work in Road to Perdition was his best yet, so understated it was heartbreaking. He doesn't have as much to do here, the stakes just aren't as high, but Viktor Navorski is the best combination of the funny Hanks and the Method-y Hanks yet. He's funny in the absurdist way the role requires, his thick Slavic accent is easily convincing, and he's also poignantly ordinary. The way Hanks plays it, he could be any of us stuck in the airport. Catherine Zeta-Jones proves once again that there isn't an actress working today that the camera loves more. Her flight attendant Amelia is a worthy love interest for Viktor, but again, for Zeta-Jones it's a tiny, empty role, barely more fleshed out than her Oscar-winning cameo in Chicago. Perhaps the demands of motherhood (or Douglashood) preclude her from spending more time on a set. The rest of the cast is in fine form as well, with Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and the luminous Zoe Saldana (Drumline) livening up the film's most superfluous subplot (of which there are many). Stanley Tucci, playing the foil as Hanks did
in Catch Me If You Can, particularly shines as the uptight, callous bureaucrat who remembers once having heart of gold and now deeply regrets its loss. It's a brilliant acting choice, and an excellent choice of actors.
Leave it to Steven Spielberg to create his own sub-genre, the warm and fuzzy Kafka-esque nightmare. In the real-life story, the Iranian man lost his mind and refused to leave the airport once permission was granted. It's too bad that delicious black irony has no place in Spielberg's childlike world of wonderment.
But if you're going to spend $60 million on a movie set entirely in an airport, having Spielberg direct it isn't the worst idea. A movie this contrived requires an expert at suspending disbelief, and Spielberg is a master. He trades expertly on the anxiety everyone has felt who has had their passport stamped in a foreign language. And all the other problems one imagines--food, money, shelter--are dealt with inventively. He keeps it moving at a breakneck pace, that is, right up until you figure out where he's headed. The movie's best moments are the wry absurdities of bureaucracy with Hanks and Tucci, and the mall-ification of the airport. When Hanks tells Saldana with much gravity, ''He waits for you at Sbarro,'' there is a knowing, discomfiting chuckle at the thought that
across the country, the most important moment of someone's life may well be taking place in a food court. Entertaining as it is, the movie still runs way too long, stuffed to the gills with false endings, too many subplots, too many characters and too much dialogue. At times he is so intent on creating a fairytale atmosphere that you can practically feel the fairy dust being shoveled down from the rafters. Good as Spielberg is, the movie feels more like a missed opportunity for the true paranoid obssessives, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, or Andrew Niccol (who wrote the original story).
The Terminal is an entertaining diversion but little more, for movie fans who enjoy watching an expert piece of studio fare on a gargantuan budget.