starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride
screenplay by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson
directed by Steven Spielberg
by Walter Chaw Early in the latest Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks collaboration The Terminal, Russian splinter exile Viktor Navorski (Hanks) runs up a staircase, throwing his suitcase onto the "up" escalator as he goes so that his baggage, in essence, is left to finish its journey on its own. It's a lovely, complicated visual metaphor for abandonment or freedom, for Spielberg the scenarist's twin obsessions with the idea of little boys lost and of little boys escaping and for Spielberg the director's inability to take responsibility for his subtext so that he might finally make that mature film he's so desperately wanted to since The Color Purple. But The Terminal is film-festival offensive, encouraging its audience to coo over the adorable antics of its madcap cast of society's blue-collar "invisibles" (playing in this respect like the slick, imminently forgettable version of Stephen Frears's working class morality play Dirty Pretty Things) in a way that isn't sympathetic so much as paternalistic. Foreigners and minorities are resourceful children, operating eternally at the mercy of the dominant majority, and Neverland is the big cities of the United States, where grown-ups have families and problems.
Viktor is trapped in the fabulized International Lounge of JFK International Airport because the fictitious country that originated his passport has dissolved in a coup. Unable to return home, his visa to the Big Apple revoked, Viktor finds himself a permanent resident in limbo at the airport, using his Cast Away-honed resourcefulness to fashion a bed from airport chairs, scavenge food, and construct elaborate Rococo fountains for his stewardess love interest, Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). (It bears mentioning that all attempts at Paul Thomas Anderson magical romantic realism fall astonishingly flat--something that should come as no surprise to people who remember Always, Spielberg's previous attempt at that sort of thing.) Constantly at odds with the facility's director of security, Frank Dixon (the great Stanley Tucci), Viktor becomes something of a folk hero to the minimum-wage slaves toiling in the lounge's shopping mecca. The Terminal is the sort of old fashioned entertainment which serves to underscore that the term "old fashioned entertainment" is generally used to describe movies frictionless, frothy movies that are dead as a five-cent malted.
There are moments of exquisite visual splendour in every one of Spielberg's films, no matter their relative success (and The Terminal is certainly no different in that respect), but the picture is so desperate to please that it becomes facile and patronizing long before an ending that casts everything in the peculiar vintage of Spielbergian schmaltz. Long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski somehow makes the open, brushed surfaces of a modern airport terminal a nightmare of blooming, haloed light: it's oppressive (Viktor leaps up at one point, hands in the air in alarm, when a plane floods his makeshift sleeping quarters with light--a lighting strategy duplicated, strangely, in the literal afterglow of the picture's key romantic moment), and it serves the imprisonment theme of the film in a way that Spielberg's decision to shoot almost everything in extreme low-angle does not. I understand that he's trying to make The Terminal--inspired loosely by a true story--a post-modern fairy tale (Lost in Translation for the emotionally neutered), but monumentalizing all of its unionized labour, focused in a scene where whimsical and wise Indian fugitive Gupta (Kumar Pallana, better in the superior post-modern fairy tale The Royal Tenenbaums) tells the tale of Viktor to a rapt audience of food-service workers, is trite verging on Noble Savage Syndrome.
Spielberg directs The Terminal almost exactly like he did The Color Purple, yet what's ravishing if controversial in that film is distracting in a dedicatedly pointless movie. It actually highlights how important the carefully burnished appearance of The Color Purple was to its discordant politicism--and how hopelessly childish is Spielberg when contriving to convey the point-of-view of the downtrodden (best example: his sickening "Kick the Can" instalment of Twilight Zone: The Movie). The arc of Spielberg from The Color Purple, his first "grown-up" picture, to The Terminal, his latest, describes our most gifted visual storyteller abandoning J.G. Ballard, Alice Walker, and WWII in favour of lighter, simpler source material and still finding a way to reduce it down to sugar and bones.
The Terminal does find a certain poignancy in spite of itself in its hot button, post-9/11 setting, the issues of Homeland Security infusing the piece with a piquant jolt of the bureaucratic absurd and a tiny undercurrent of criticism of our unsettled political environment. And by regarding the film as a neo-Moscow on the Hudson (same pidgin accent from a television comedian-turned-Oscar-winner, same institutional setting, same formula love story), the timing of The Terminal is indeed interesting: Like 1984's appalling Moscow on the Hudson, the picture appears late in the first term of a Republican president who has led us into record deficit and unprecedented international instability. It presumes primitivism on the part of our adorable immigrant misfits, recalling the way that a Japanese man dies for not understanding the complex wilderness notion of "shallow water" in Japanese Story, and then rewards the adorable outcast rat for his discovery of the principle of a baggage cart-return machine. (Eureka! Capitalism.) If only the hero of The Terminal were from a fictional Arab country rather than a fictional Slavic one: the statute of limitations on Moscovites carrying satirical weight expired with the Soviet Union.
After the gratifyingly auto-critical, laudably dark Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal is a regression to form that, despite a funny caricature from Hanks, a great performance by Tucci, and Zeta-Jones at her most vulnerable and attractive, feels suspiciously like a comfortable afterthought. It's a polite conversation about nothing amongst like-minded friends: chicken soup for the narcoleptic and the easily distracted. Originally published: June 18, 2004.