A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE TERMINAL j
½ 

2004, PG-13, 121 mins.

Viktor Navorski: Tom Hanks / Amelia: Catherine Zeta-Jones / Frank Dixon: Stanley Tucci / Ray Thurman: Barry Shabaka Henley / Mulroy: Chi McBride / Enrique Cruz: Diego Luna / Gupta Rajan: Kumar Pallanatucci / INS agent: Zoe Saldana

Directed by Steven Spielberg /  Written by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson

The Terminal (International) Double-sided poster

Okay, okay…while watching THE TERMINAL I fully realized that Steven Spielberg was trying to make a nostalgic throwback, fish-out-of-water fable that had echoes of Frank Capra. 

Maybe that’s precisely the problem with the film. 

Its incessant yearning to reach out and appropriate those Capra moments seems as needless as it does tiresome, and the film is bathed in excessively sentimental and melodramatic waters.  THE TERMINAL is a film that constantly peals away layer after layer of inconsistencies and inane ideas until it inevitably reaches its core of complete and utter implausibility.  The film is ever-so-loosely based on a true story and I only point that out to reveal that, if it were not mentioned by me, then everyone would  consider this misfire more fantasy than reality. 

In Spielberg’s unusually misguided hands THE TERMINAL is a disappointment.  In our post-9/11 geo-political climate that includes intense security and overall paranoia for all things even latently and indirectly dangerous, THE TERMINAL’s overt happiness and cozy warmth feels contrived and phony at best.  This is apparent alongside moments of lame and spotty melodrama that made my stomach churn.  Hockey metaphors aside, If SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER’S LIST, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK were hat tricks, then THE TERMINAL is not even a reasonable shot on net.  From a man who is arguably the best populist  filmmaker of his generation, THE TERMINAL is a letdown and a blackmark on Spielberg’s respectable and fairly untarnished resume. 

If there is one thing that  I am relieved at it then it's Spielberg’s insistence to not have a “based on a true story” credit on the screen.  THE TERMINAL may be somewhat based on the real life Iranian refuge Merhan Nasseri who, in 1988, landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris.  He was subsequently denied entry into England as a result of his passport and United Nations refugee certificate being unfortunately stolen.  As a result, the French authorities would not let him leave the airport under any circumstances.  Nasseri became a stateless man with no place to go.  Apparently, he was later granted permission to either leave the airport and enter France or go back to his home country, but instead chose to stay and reside in the terminal.  Funny, but I don't think he ever, while there, got a $19 per hour construction job, met and feel in love with a beautiful stewardess, and helped set up a deliveryman and an airport agent to become husband and wife.

Nasseri's story could have made for a fascinating docudrama, but I think Spielberg missed a real obvious opportunity to make a scathing and incriminating human drama about  persecution with the right undertones of comic madness and insanity.  In his hands, he has appropriated the basic elements and makes a squeaky clean comedy that felt more like a two hour sitcom than a real exploration into this man’s terrible predicament.  Instead of social commentary, we get lots of slapstick antics, one dimensional characters, ridiculous plot developments, and absurd comedy that seems more appropriate in films that have the name Adam Sandler headlining it.  Mr. Spielberg, you are too good of a filmmaker and are above this type of mediocrity. 

Spielberg has always been a director of big ideas, images, and themes.  THE TERMINAL is a step down from his usual large scale productions, to a degree, and that’s noble enough.  Yet, it is his yearning and obsessive earnestness to be relentless and heinously upbeat that destroys the film.  He treads very shaky, dangerous ground in painfully forced moments to be Capra-esque, and that proves to be the film’s ultimate undoing.  The smaller moments, which are few and far between, are nice and well handled, but the larger scenes are too broad and unforgivably manipulative.  THE TERMINAL, thus, is more fantasy than reality, and a story that never once had me believing in it. 

Tom Hanks (in a serviceable, but strongly one note performance) plays Victor Navorski, a native of the obviously fictitious Slavic country of Krakozia.  While he is traveling from his beloved home country to America’s JFK airport, his homeland becomes engulfed in a bloody civil war in which a military coup takes place within the nation’s government.  When Victor arrives in the United States, barely able to speak English (he speaks his native tongue mostly, which is, in reality, Bulgarian, but never mind) and soon discovers that his Visa has been cancelled.  The US has not recognized the new government of Krakozhia, which truly adds weight to Victor’s shoulders.  He subsequently cannot even be deported.  In short and simple political terms, he does not exist.   He finds all of this out in a scene that was equal parts frustrating as it was unbelievable.  The head of the airport Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) briefs him on all of this, despite the fact that Victor can barely speak two words of English.  Why Frank even tries to explain these things without an interpreter or how Victor manages to comprehend most of his predicament is amazing to me. 

Nevertheless, Frank decides to grant Victor free reign of the International Terminal, provided that he never leaves the airport nor steps foot on US soil.  He does provide him lunch vouchers and a measly fifteen minute calling card.  Victor soon accepts his status and again, amazingly, begins to establish a habitual routine and a life at the terminal.  He manages to find a place to sleep every night (which is never really discovered or dealt with) begins to find ways to make money to support himself (in one hilariously overwrought point in the film, he manages to get construction work in the terminal that pays $19 an hour, which affords him the chance to buy nice expensive suits) and gradually gets to know the other workers of the airport.   

It's funny, but Spielberg seems more interested in playing up light to broad comedy and spicing up every scene with false notes of sentimentality than truly investing in what would be a fascinating and intrinsically interesting premise.  Following the day-to-day activities of this man would be a constant source of enlightenment, but more groans emerge that elation by watching it.  He meets the obligatory colourful and all strangely different personalities.  One man he meets is an East Indian janitor with a terrible secret and later gets introduced to  a food service delivery man that provides Victor with food if he can help set him up with a gorgeous INS agent (how the delivery man never gets into trouble for giving away free food and how inventory levels are never checked or scrutinized is never dealt with). 

Victor also meets a pair of baggage handlers who play poker with him after work hours not for money, but for items from the lost and found.   As stated, Victor barely speaks English, but teaches himself by endlessly studying volumes of English texts from the airport bookstore and by watching TV.  Oh, and since he becomes a carpenter and construction worker making big bucks, he is able to, without any intervention or questioning, rip down walls, gut its innards, and create fantastic facades, without any clear permission from anyone.  This is embellished in one the film’s dumbest scenes where a construction laborer states, “I want him on my payroll from now on.”  This is a close second to a moment when Victor reveals a beautifully realized marble water fountain that he made, again unabated, for the woman he loves. 

The woman he meets and falls in love with is Amelia, played by Catherine Zeta Jones.  She is a knockout stewardess whom he bumps into frequently.  She is a closet intellectual (she reads thousand page books on Napoleon) but is too stupid and narrow-minded to understand that Victor is a refuge (when Victor tells her he goes from “building to building”, she responds, “Oh, you’re a contractor!”).  They see each other a lot, but Jones does not come across as the cleanest of women (she is having an affair with a married man, which instantly nullifies any sympathy we have for her, as well as diminishing our desire that Victor hooks up with this loser).  Amelia, nevertheless, feels like she can open her heart to this man.  Sure.  Right.  Uh-huh.  In yet another one of the movie’s inexplicable scenes, Victor takes her out for a date at the terminal with his various terminal friends posing at waiters, servers, and magicians.  I was less taken in with the emotions of the moment and was kept too busy by  regurgitating in mind, “what-EVER!” 

On a positive note, THE TERMINAL is a masterpiece of set design and spatial inventiveness.  I was amazed later to discover that Spielberg did not shoot in a real airport but rather had the whole set constructed in a warehouse.  It’s a gloriously realized set, but the sight of all of those endless product shots and endorsements of fast food companies, book merchants, and retail outlets were kind of off-putting.  In a film that’s supposed to down to earth and sweet, its overt and heavy-handed focus on commercialism and product placement was a sore spot (why not use fictional places, that would have drawn less attraction to itself).  Spielberg’s directorial eye is also apparent, although not as much as it needs to be.  Many times you can’t once sense his presence as a director, but for a few quiet moments, his play with light and shadow bares his signature well. 

The film is completely negligible on a story, character, and believability level.  Hanks is adequate as Victor, but it’s by no means a stretch for the actor, and the two time Oscar winner seems to phone this one in.  The supporting characters are fun and quirky, but their individual sub-plots are rushed and poorly realized, if at all.  The courtship of the deliveryman and the INS agent defies reality in large ways, as does their shotgun wedding that takes place at the terminal.  Probably the most inspired character in the film is Gupta, the Indian janitor (played very humorously by Kumar Pallanatucci).  He kind of shines in small moments, especially when he reveals a painful secret to Victor. 

Yet, he is also the source of the single most manipulative and outrageously unbelievable moment in the film (it involves him running to a moving airplane with a broom in hand and ends with a moment that rivals the final court hearing scene in PATCH ADAMS for its unforgivable cornball theatrics).  Amelia herself remains one of the most mindless and redundant characters in the film, whose presence is as unnecessary as it was superfluous.  There is so much build up with her and Victor that does not pay off on any meaningful way at all.  This, in turn, reveals how unnecessary of a character she was, and if Spielberg excised her from the script, he would have had a much tighter story.  The film is long as it is, and the final moments between her and Victor are a dramatic letdown (this is one of two versions that Spielberg shot, maybe he should have used the other?) 

The biggest problem with THE TERMINAL is Spielberg’s decision to take a character that started off well and degenerate him into more of a one-dimensional antagonist.  The head of the airport – Frank – begins as a fairly respectable and solid airline official that plays by the book.  Yet, as the film progresses and his hatred of Victor’s situation grows, he develops into a unsavory, power-hungry villain whose only purpose in life is to make Victor’s life as uncomfortable as possible.  He’s so broadly played by Tucci and so inappropriately handled that he eventually came across more of a despicable college dean in a bad frat house movie than a realistic airport bureaucrat.  He becomes so hateful and vindictive that you constantly ask yourself why he does not just arrest Victor in some sort of convenient set-up?   

Spielberg is capable of making fresh, colorful, and whimsical light-hearted films (his CATCH ME IF YOU CAN was one of the best films of 2002).  Yet here he panders and becomes a slave to the heavy-handed melodrama and creates individual scenes and characters that (a) have tremendous build-up and (b) whose conclusions from that build up lack satisfying closure or stretch the suspension of disbelief to the extreme.  It seems forced, contrived, and rings untrue at almost every pore.  It's pleasant-minded and harmless, but has no idea really where it wants to go or what tone it wishes to encapsulate. 

However, it is Spielberg’s own fault for brushing over the film with an uncomfortable swipe of unapologetic sappiness and crude slapstick.  I have watched most of his work and have been moved in some capacities, but watching THE TERMINAL made me feel emotional vacant, and its desire to be a Capra-esque feel-good film is completely undermined by its ill-conceived subplots, badly realized characters, and a basic premise that is difficult to believe in.  For the first time in my young movie viewing life (and considering how much admiration I have had for his work over the years), I am ashamed to admit that I could not wait to depart  from this Spielberg film.

 

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