The Terminal

Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” takes you on such a funny, good-natured ride that you forgive its destination being so ordinary and disappointing. Here’s a master storyteller at work, delighting us with warm characters and surprises at every turn, only to find himself stymied when he gets to the end and realizes this wonderful story has nowhere to go.

Set in the present at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the film opens with scenes of chaos and cacophony typical of a busy terminal. This frenetic world will soon become home to Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a native of a place called Krakozhia, which has undergone a military coup since Viktor left mere days ago. With a new government in place that is not yet recognized by the United States, Viktor can neither get back on a plane (his passport is useless now), nor can he officially enter America. Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the bureaucrat who runs JFK’s Homeland Security office, tells him all he can do is stay in the airport until a decision is reached. Viktor has no choice but to take up residence there in the terminal. And wait. And wait.

There’s a real-life guy who’s been living in the Paris airport for years because of a situation like this, and his situation, which does not sound at all fun to me, inspired this one. In the hands of Spielberg — back on the whimsical, gee-whiz train that has marked most of his career — the story becomes a fable, the terminal becomes a microcosm, and characters become modest archetypes.

Despite speaking little English during the film’s first act, Viktor evolves into a fully developed character. This is due to a performance by Hanks that is so fine-tuned, he makes us forget, yet again, just how good an actor he really is. He makes it look so natural and effortless, but watch his eyes when Viktor learns his homeland has fallen to military rebels, and then tell me Hanks isn’t one of the best actors of his generation.

Viktor learns English over the course of several weeks by watching the terminal’s CNN feeds (for other characters learning English by watching TV, see Spielberg’s “E.T.” or Hanks’ “Splash”), and by locating a travel guide in English and the same one in Krakozhian and comparing them. Like Hanks’ characters in “Big” and “Cast Away” (where he also didn’t speak much for a good chunk of the film), Viktor is extremely smart and resourceful. He’s just out of his element, that’s all.

Dixon, wryly underplayed by Tucci except in the end, when the screenplay forces him into hysterics, represents The Government, which Spielberg’s films have often looked upon with mistrust — not in a political way, really, but in the way a child would view something so monolithic and powerful. The same government that would take away a boy’s best friend just because he’s an alien would also make a man live in an airport just because he’s … well, an alien.

Dixon and his league of airport security guards find Viktor fascinating, watching his every move on the surveillance cameras like an ongoing drama. (It will not surprise you to learn that “The Terminal’s” screenplay comes from a story by Andrew Niccol, who wrote “The Truman Show.”)

Viktor, meanwhile, becomes friends with various airport personnel. Among them: An Indian janitor named Gupta (Kumar Pallana), who himself is a refugee from his native land; Enrique (Diego Luna), who works for an in-flight meal provider, gives Viktor the unused meals, and asks Viktor to help him woo Officer Torres (Zoe Saldana), the pretty INS agent who’s a Trekkie. The sequence in which Viktor approaches Torres, obtains information and returns to Enrique, over and over again, is utterly fantastic, buoyantly paced and smartly edited.

Viktor also meets a stewardess named Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has been carrying on an affair with a married man despite her better judgment. Since she winds up at JFK every few weeks, and since Viktor is there 24/7, their paths cross often enough to strike up a friendship. But while Zeta-Jones in this role is more personable and radiant than she’s ever been, her character is useless, nothing more than an obligatory romantic subplot.

Through Amelia we find out why Viktor came to America in the first place, and why he’s determined to get to New York City. The reasons aren’t as good as they ought to be, and that’s a letdown. As fine as the movie has been to that point, we’ve come to expect everything to be first-rate, so the schmaltzy resolution in Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay feels hollow.

Still, I feel churlish making any major criticisms, since most of them did not occur to me until well after viewing the film. While I was actually IN it, I was almost constantly captivated by the high-spirited humor, which at times is wildly loosy-goosy, even manic. This is probably Spielberg’s funniest film, and though it’s ultimately not as tender as it wants to be, it certainly has enough else going for it.

B+ (2 hrs., 1 min.; PG-13, some mild profanity and brief drug references; this is a PG movie if I ever saw one.)