In honor of the release of Steven Speilberg’s Bridge of Spies I am posting my original reviews of Speilberg’s more recent films including this review of 2004’s The Terminal starring Tom Hanks.
I thought it was an urban legend. My brother and I were discussing the new Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks flick The Terminal when he told me the story of Merhan Karimi Nasseri. Mr. Nasseri has spent the past 15 years in the international terminal of Charles De Gaulle Airport in France after his bag was stolen with all of his identification.
The Iranian born Mr. Nasseri has lived off the kindness of the airport staff for 15 years, has inspired 2 documentaries and a French film called Tombes Du Ciel or Lost In Transit starring the legendary Jean Rochefort. Now Mr. Nasseri is a getting a big time American treatment from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Sadly, this trifle of a film is exposed for it’s light as featheriness by the dramatic true story on which it is loosely based.
In The Terminal, Tom Hanks is Viktor Navorsky who has come to New York City from his Eastern block home of Krakozhia. Unfortunately while Mr. Navorsky was flying to America, Krakozhia plunged into civil war and the government dissipated. Now in America, Mr. Navorsky is a man without a country, his Visa is invalid because the U.S government can’t recognize a ruling power in Krakozhia. Until the war ends and a new government is established, Viktor must remain in the airport terminal.
Breaking the bad news to Viktor is the not so kindly head of the airport’s Homeland Security Office Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). It is Frank who could find away to really help Viktor but instead strands him with bureaucratic red tape and then takes a sadistic interest in preventing Viktor from making the most of his desperate situation.
Stuck in the International terminal, that looks more like a mall than an airport thanks to the numerous real brand name stores, Viktor waits and involves himself in the lives of the airport staff. There is Diego Luna as a food delivery worker who trades Viktor free food in exchange for Viktor’s help in romancing an INS Agent played by Zoë Saldana. Although Viktor knows he can’t leave, he visits the INS office every day to have his passport declined.
Chi McBride is a baggage handler with a soft spot for late night card games. He sees Viktor as a soft mark for poker games but soon becomes a real friend. And then there is the janitor, an Indian man played by Kumar Pallana, a lovable oddball with a secret past. Pallana provides the biggest laughs of the film and none of them at his expense.
Finally, there is Catherine Zeta Jones as Amelia, a flight attendant who takes a shine to Viktor but can’t get involved because she is hopelessly involved with a married man played briefly by Michael Nouri. While she resists him, Amelia and Viktor come close to romance until the plot conspires to split them.
Despite the film’s dramatic underpinnings, everything is kept very light and airy. In fact, it’s so light that it floats off the screen and almost immediately from your memory. Tom Hanks, arguably our most talented actor, here plays a sort of lovable puppy of a character whose moral fiber is so unquestionable, he is too good to be true. There is nothing wrong with a character that is virtuous but Viktor is Touched By An Angel good. Maybe that explains why Stanley Tucci’s officious bureaucrat hates him so much anyone this perfect would eventually get on your nerves. Still, Tucci is too evil to be true until the plot calls for him to look the other way.
Too good to be true describes most of The Terminal which suffers from a script full of contrivances. Viktor quickly learns English, lucks into the food deal with Diego, lucks into a job working construction in the terminal and in typical forced romantic comedy fashion has a meet-cute with Amelia that becomes a running gag.
I have been quite hard on The Terminal to this point so I should point out that their are a number of good things about the film. Steven Spielberg’s direction is typically strong in its structure and look. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky relishes the freedom given him by the set that was built specifically for the film.
The film’s biggest star may in fact be the set created by production designer Alex McDowell. Rather than trying to wrangle shooting time in a real airport terminal, McDowell and his team of designers built a terminal inside a Los Angeles airport hangar. The flawless design is a seamless recreation of any major airport terminal in the country right down to the uncomfortable benches and astoundingly high prices.
However, without a well-told story to decorate the terrific set, the movie isn’t worth anymore than it’s production design. The Terminal is likable and sweet, occasionally quite funny but also inconsistent, simpleminded and lighter than air.
Despite my reservations, Tom Hanks is his typically likable self and Mr. Spielberg’s direction is of his usual quality. It’s unfortunate that the script by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson is far below the quality of their work.