Montreal Film Journal


"What's the purpose of your visit?"

That's the question being asked to wave after wave of passengers passing through the terminal of JFK airport. More questions are asked, names are taken, papers are stamped one way or another, and you know what this reminds of? An early scene in Schindler's List in which Jews are similarly filed and registered. But that was Steven Spielberg a decade ago, going as far away from popular entertainment as he's ever been, while his latest is a pure crowd-pleasing fantasy.

Oh, "The Terminal" is set in contemporary New York and nothing supernatural occurs, and the press materials make much of how the film was inspired by the real-life plight of Iranian exile Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who called Charles de Gaulle Airport home for years, but nonetheless: this is a fantasy. How else could you accept all these colourful characters and eccentricities, the way every little things play off one another in so many cute ways?

Tom Hanks stars as Viktor Navorski, an Eastern European building contracter who lands in America and finds out that a military coup happened in his homeland (the fictional country of Krakozhia) during his flight, effectively sealing the borders and nullifying his passport. Now a "citizen of nowhere", Navorski can't go back nor enter the United States until his "new" country is recognized. All he can do is hang around the Terminal and the International Transit Lounge, waiting...

The prospect of spending two hours watching a guy stuck in an airport isn't particularly appealing, but Spielberg and Hanks turn this "delay" into a delight. The terminal was built onto an enormous set, allowing the filmmakers to make it familiar and distinctive and to move the actors and the cameras freely through it (ooh, crane shots!). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoots the picture like something out of dream, overflowing with light and color; even the non-stop product placement is nice to look at.

The movie skillfully juggles light comedy and sentimentality, coming up with something somewhat Chaplinesque. Hanks is pretty much giving a silent comic performance here. His character can barely speak English but his body language is very expressive, so much that he tends to run into things. This endears him to various airport workers, notably an Indian janitor (Kumar Pallana), a Mexican food services employee (Diego Luna) and an African-American baggage handler (Chi McBride). Viktor basically becomes the terminal's mascot, to the dismay of customs official Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who can't legally let him leave the terminal yet can't have him arrested either.

There's also an inconsequential but sweet flirtation that develops between our Man Without a Country and a beautiful flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who bond over wet floors and Napoleon trivia, something about a mysterious can of peanuts and old Black jazzmen, and plenty more things too silly to mention (let's not even start with the goat incident). There are all kinds of storytelling shortcuts, character inconsistencies and plot contrivances, but damn it if the thing doesn't work in spite of it all. Spielberg and Hanks pour so much heart and good will into every scene that you find yourself moved anyway. "The Terminal" is an old-fashioned, corny but charming fable.