July 29, 2005
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Kumar Pallana, Zoe Saldana, Eddie Jones, Jude Ciccolella, Corey Reynolds, Guillermo Díaz, Rini Bell, Stephen Mendel, Valeri Nikolayev, ,
When you’re Steven Spielberg you can make any movie you like, so when a small independent-spirited true story about one man stuck in an airport comes along, he has the power to build an entire working terminal set around it. Such is the attention to detail that if you didn’t know the airport in question was fake you wouldn’t think too much of the scenery at all. You may even find it dull compared to recent Spielberg visual master classes such as A.I or Minority Report. True, The Terminal doesn’t hit these highs, and will probably be listed in the lesser Spielberg cannon along with Catch Me If You Can and Always, but there is plenty to enjoy here, mostly thanks to an engaging script from The Truman Show writer Andrew Niccol and the ever-reliable Tom Hanks.
Tourist Viktor Navorski arrives in New York and almost immediately finds himself in trouble now that his home country of Krakozhia is locked in war and, from a bureaucratic standpoint; he no longer exists. He can’t enter America and he can’t go home, thus he’s stuck in the terminal of the title. He is, as airport honcho Frank Dixon comments, simply unacceptable. At first Viktor seems to be a stereotypical bumbling foreigner, unable to grasp the English language and constantly misunderstanding the instructions given to him by an increasingly frustrated airport staff. But left alone to survive on his wits, we quickly come to realise that Viktor is far more resourceful than most of the natives. Before long he’s figured out how to get money for food and how to turn an uncomfortable row of metal chairs into a makeshift bed.
Hanks nails the accent and, more importantly, the cultural differences bubbling below the surface (he tries to help a girl close her suitcase but ends up being screamed at for his troubles. Welcome to America, Spielberg seems to sneer). Viktor soon makes friends in the form of love-struck cafeteria worker Enrique and his grumpy cleaner pal Gupta (a scene-stealing Kumar Pallana). The theme here is ‘waiting’ – everybody seems to be waiting for something to happen so that they can move forward in their lives. For Viktor it’s to be released from limbo. For Diego it’s asking out the pretty trekkie from immigration. And then there’s Amelia (Zeta Jones), the stewardess who’s been trying to get her married boyfriend to leave his wife for the last seven years, but is also immediately attracted to straight-talker Viktor. “Three,” Viktor shakes his head at her wisely. “Crowded. Is no good.” Then there’s Dixon (Tucci), who lives in a world of strict rules and who views Viktor (rightly so) as chaos. Bending the rules may get Viktor out of his hair, but it just isn’t part of his programming, so they’re stuck with each other.
It’s beautifully shot by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski and the performances are excellent but what stops The Terminal from being listed amongst Spielberg’s best is a slow, muddled second half that ultimately fails to satisfy despite (or maybe because of) the lack of a cosy Hollywood ending. When we learn why Viktor is in New York it’s hardly mind-blowing stuff. Still, the fun and inventiveness of the opening scenes where Viktor finds his way around the airport, learning to speak better English by reading TV news bulletins, or collecting quarters from discarded trolleys is enough to leave you with a pleasant feeling in your stomach come lights up, but as Charlie Kaufman noted in Adaptation: ‘Wow them in the third act and you’ve got a winner’. Sadly Spielberg only manages this in the first two.
Unlike the yanks, who had a choice of zero extras or a limited edition (read: expensive) three disc edition, we get a decent two discer full of featurettes. These are broken into six sections: ‘Booking The Flight: The Script, The Story’, ‘Waiting For The Flight: Building The Terminal’, ‘Boarding: The People of The Terminal’, ‘Take Off: Making The Terminal’, ‘In Flight Service: The Music of The Terminal’ and finally ‘Landing: Airport Stories’.
These features were unavailable at the time of review but if Spielberg’s previous releases are anything to go by, we’ll get some interesting factoids about production but alas, no commentary.