If Steven Spielberg’s latest made you feel any better, you can be sure someone in the Bush administration would try to pass a law against it. A more life affirming celebration of humankind’s inherent goodness hasn’t blazed
across a movie screen since the days when guys like Jimmy Stewart did their thing for guys like Frank Capra but, as uplifting and warmhearted as the whole business is, there’s a sad, dark side to it too. Because the Capraesque quality of The Terminal is neither accident nor tribute. It is Spielberg’s response to the horror of these times, his acknowledgment of the duty he’s come to believe an artist has to his public during war time. “I wanted to do a movie that could make you laugh and cry and feel good about the world,” he’s explained. “This
is a time when we need to smile more and Hollywood movies are supposed to do that for people in difficult times.”
In this respect The Terminal comprises the latest work in a cycle which began with the WW II dramas Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, continued with the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (which he coproduced with Tom
Hanks) and includes The Pacific War, another WW II production for cable the two currently have in development. In the past, Spielberg’s told war stories. With his latest, he’s told the sort of story that helped previous generations get through wars.
Hanks teams up with the director for the third time on screen in the role of Viktor Navorski, an Eastern European whose country disintegrates in a violent coup just as his plane touches down on U.S. soil. Armed with only a few words of English and a Planters Peanuts can (the contents of which come into play in the film’s later innings), he’s ill equipped to deal with the Kafkaesque bugaboo into which fate has thrust him. He is informed by JFK’s customs and immigrations chief (Stanley Tucci) that, as his homeland no longer exists, his passport is no longer valid. The law will not permit him to enter the country. At the same time, the country from which he’s come has sealed its borders. He’s in bureaucratic limbo and forced to confine himself to the airport’s international transit lounge while the snafu is sorted out.
Of course, like most bureaucratic snafus, it is not sorted out as swiftly nor as efficiently as it might be. Viktor’s mission requires him to visit New York City and the reason for the visit is so important to him that he
is willing to wait as long as it takes to make the trip and make it without breaking American law.
As the days stretch into months, Hank’s character patiently adapts to his environment. He learns English by reading TV news network crawls, subsists by returning luggage carts to their racks for the 25 cent reward, bathes in the men’s room and doesn’t stay a stranger in a strange land for long. In short order, he’s befriended an engaging collection of terminal regulars which includes a food service employee (Diego Luna) an INS official with whom Luna is smitten (Zoe Saldana) and a janitor (Kumar Pallanatucci) whose greatest joy in life seems to be washing floors and then watching as passengers ignore his yellow warning cones and wind up airborne before they ever make it to a plane.
The displaced traveler’s relationships with these people and his experience of America via the microcosm of the airport mall make for a sweetly comic fable that embraces the universal in the seemingly alien. Hanks creates one of the most memorable characters in his considerable career. There’s a Chaplanesque quality to Viktor and neither his accent nor his cluelessness are played for easy laughs, though The Terminal easily has more laughs than Hank’s (The Ladykillers) and Spielberg’s (Catch Me If You Can) most recent comedies combined. The picture’s an unapologetic crowd pleaser. At the same time, there’s a surreal streak running through it. That streak can be traced back to the writer Andrew Niccol, who came up with the idea on which this film is based and also wrote
The Truman Show.
So, is this Spielberg in top form? Will it rank with the director’s best? I’m not sure. Probably not. It’s a film that fits the times perfectly,
though. It may not be great but you’re guaranteed to feel great walking out the theater door.