Though history may regard it as more of an in-flight snack than a full-course meal, Steven Spielberg’s spirit-lifting “The Terminal” comes along at just the right moment. With cinemas currently providing little refuge from disasters both natural and manmade, this buoyant, optimistic fable seems to share in the late Ronald Reagan’s optimism for America. It does so with the help of a gifted comic ensemble led by Tom Hanks as an immigrant unable to leave in a New York City airport. Ideal counterprogramming against the season’s bombastic blockbusters, pic should quickly pilot its way to the helmer’s usual numbers for non-genre fare.
Fanciful as it sounds, the premise of “The Terminal” is rooted in fact — specifically, the case of Iranian expatriate Merhan Karimi Nessari, who has, since 1988, resided in Terminal 1 of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport. (Previously, Nessari’s story was the inspiration for the 1994 French pic “Lost in Transit.”)
Here, Hanks plays the Messari-inspired Viktor Navorski, who touches down on American soil only to discover that, during his flight, a political coup occurred in his fictional Eastern European homeland. Informed by businesslike Homeland Security officer Frank Dixon (well played by Stanley Tucci) that he is unable to return home or to seek asylum in the U.S. until our government recognizes the new regime, Viktor is ordered to stay put in the airport.
Dixon reasons it’s only a matter of time before his virtual prisoner escapes into the Big Apple and becomes some other agency’s problem. But Viktor wants to enter the U.S. legally, for unspecified reasons that may concern the tin of Planters peanuts he carries around like a family heirloom.
Restricted to the confines of the airport’s glittering, glass-and-steel international transit area, Viktor patiently goes about making himself a home, while the film evolves into a gentle satire of the dilemmas of immigration and the resilience of this new American’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Because Viktor is depicted, in these early passages, as barely speaking a word of English, Hanks’ Viktor becomes something of a silent observer, bemusedly soaking up the spectacle of harried travelers. Performance resonates with an underplayed, deadpan grace closer to Hanks’ solo scenes in “Cast Away” than to his broadly comic turn in the Coen Brothers’ “Ladykillers” remake. Yet, the role also affords the actor some of the best opportunities for physical comedy that he’s had since “Big,” and he pulls them off with unselfconscious ease. Even Viktor’s thick, vaguely Russian accent hardly seems a distraction, precisely because he doesn’t say very much.
Screenplay slyly observes the terminal as a home to an entire community of uprooted persons — from Indian emigre janitor Gupta (scene-stealing Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pallana), who takes perverse pleasure in watching people slip across his freshly-waxed floors, to Mexican food-service worker Enrique (Diego Luna), who pines for the affections of a beautiful Customs officer (Zoe Saldana).
There’s also knockout United Airlines flight attendant Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose meet-cute with Viktor owes itself to a waxy, Gupta-generated tumble. Embroiled in an unsatisfying affair with a married man (Michael Nouri), she finds herself drawn to Viktor’s honesty and warmth, and able to relate to his feeling of living in an airport (which she initially mistakes as a metaphor).
Yet, while Viktor and Amelia continue to rendezvous, their relationship becomes neither the focal point of “The Terminal” nor a full-blown romance. And while Zeta-Jones is excellent at revealing Amelia’s sad, delicate dimensions, she ultimately isn’t in that much of the movie. Of course, that’s part of pic’s point — that in this crazy, mixed-up world, we rarely have time to stop and savor the things that really matter.
For a movie about a man whose very nationality lingers in limbo for months, “The Terminal” lacks any significant sense of conflict, and an 11th-hour subplot involving Art Kane’s famous Harlem jazz portrait feels like something out of left field. But at its best, “The Terminal” finds Spielberg working in the breezy, freewheeling fashion that dates back to his early “The Sugarland Express” and his recent “Catch Me if You Can.”
Spielberg does not appear to take himself or the material too seriously, and his steadfast refusal to see the proverbial glass as less than half-full is more inspiring than cloying. In Spielberg’s world, it’s possible for an immigrant to learn fluent English by reading a Fodor’s travel guide. And, in a summer when the likes of “Troy” and “The Stepford Wives” are what pass for old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment, it’s a pleasure to spend time there.
Astonishingly, pic’s massive, detail-perfect set is just that — not a real airport terminal at all, but an exact replica constructed by production designer Alex McDowell in a Palmdale, Calif., aerospace hanger. (A few exteriors were shot in Montreal.)
Though relatively minor compared to his superb work on the new “Harry Potter” pic, John Williams’ score still offers an enjoyable coupling of typically Holst-ian fanfares and more adventurous, klezmer-influenced riffs.
Perhaps pic’s greatest technical pleasure, however, is the lustrous, color-saturated cinematography of regular Spielberg lenser Janusz Kaminski, whose work here registers at the opposite end of the spectrum from his signature faded hues and blown-out lighting schemes, resulting in a visual luxuriance that harks back to Spielberg’s classic collaborations with d.p. Allen Daviau (“E.T.,” “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun”).