Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” (2004)

Every director has that film that holds no interest to you, even the directors you admire.  For director Steven Spielberg, there are a few—but only by virtue of the sheer size of his catalog.  One of those, for me at least, is THE TERMINAL (2004)—Spielberg’s follow-up to 2002’s dual hits MINORITY REPORT and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.  I remember that the trailers made THE TERMINAL look almost too Hollywood, like it was a maudlin or trivial experience.  So color me surprised to find that I actually enjoyed the film when I finally sat down to watch it the other day.  The tale of an Eastern European man trapped in the international terminal at JFK proved much more charming and funnier than the trite romantic comedy it was positioned as.   THE TERMINAL works in the same vein as CATCH ME IF YOU CAN—a throwback to well-crafted, old-school Hollywood entertainment.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has travelled to New York City from his homeland of Krakozhia, a fictional country in the former Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe.  While he was in the air, his country exploded into a violent coup, and now that his country doesn’t technically exist anymore, his passport and travel documents are no longer valid.  He is denied entry into the US, instead having to languish in the international terminal at JFK until world events sort themselves out.  He stays for nearly nine months, learning how to survive in the peculiar, contained ecosystem while dodging the attempts of Customs Director Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) at tricking him into leaving the terminal.  If he does, he’ll be arrested and therefore no longer be the airport’s responsibility.  Viktor befriends several low-level workers in the terminal, and even manages to fall in love with a beautiful stewardess named Amelia Warren.  All in all, THE TERMINAL is a good-natured comedy about a warm, trusting man who beats the cynical bureaucrats while teaching them a lesson in basic human dignity.

Tom Hanks’ everyman likability lends itself well to Spielberg’s sensibilities, especially in his Frank Capra micro-phase that began with CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.  As Viktor Navorski, Hanks ably assumes the affectations of a generically Eastern European man.  He’s initially unable to speak English, so at first brush he comes off as dumb to most Americans.  However, he’s supremely intelligent and surprisingly handy, quickly learning enough English to function and make the most of his situation.  While it’s likely that Hanks’ performance in THE TERMINAL will not be remembered in time, it’s still a reminder of just how good he is and how unexpectedly diverse his range is.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Amelia Warren, the beautiful, elegant stewardess who Viktor pines after.  She’s in the midst of an affair with a married man who won’t leave his wife for her, a scenario that leaves her emotionally vulnerable and open to Viktor’s friendliness.  Somewhere in his good heart, Viktor must know his love for is a doomed love that can never be, but she becomes a beacon of hope and motivation for the displaced foreigner.  As the bespectacled, cynical Customs Director, Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Frank Dixon is unconventionally temperamental for an otherwise conventional antagonist.  At times, he is rather warm towards Viktor’s plight, but then he switches on a dime to cold dismissiveness.  I never quite knew how to read Tucci’s true mood in several scenes, but the well-respected character actor still manages to turn in a consistently surprising performance.

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The international terminal at JFK is populated by several smaller characters, each with their own plight and purpose within the narrative.  Diego Luna plays Enrique Cruz, a lowly luggage boy hopelessly in love with Zoe Saldana’s customs officer character.  Saldana, conversely, is straightlaced and by-the-book as Dolores Torres.  She isn’t even aware of Cruz’s love for her, but she harbors a personal secret that he is able to exploit to gain her affection: she is a hidden Trekkie (amusing, considering she would later go on to star in JJ Abrams’ rendition of STAR TREK in 2009).  Wes Anderson mainstay Kumar Pallana plays Gupta Rajan, the terminal’s paranoid janitor.  He’s hiding a secret about his own past that threatens to come to light when Viktor enters the picture.  And Barry Shabaka Henley plays Thurman, a customs security officer and Tucci’s right hand man.  Thurman is far more considerate than Tucci is, and serves as a warm, stoic, authoritative presence.  It’s interesting to see this side to Henley after his cool-as-ice performances in Michael Mann’s movies.

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THE TERMINAL delivers a fairly straightforward visual presentation, using its simplicity for maximum effect.  The signature Janusz Kaminksi/Spielberg look (crushed blacks and blooming highlights) is significantly toned down here.  Their color palette echoes the sleek, modern terminal with a teal, steely hue.  The same goes for the calculated dolly and crane movements that Spielberg employs throughout.  THE TEMRINAL’s biggest visual conceit is the set design of MINORITY REPORT’s art director Alex McDowell.  A full-size airport terminal set was constructed inside a hangar, with fully-functional and operational stores and restaurants.  The effect is an impressive sealed-off bubble for the film to play around in.

John Williams’ regular musical contribution has been considerably toned down in THE TERMINAL.  What little score there is has an Eastern European flair, serving as a motif for Viktor.  Instead, Spielberg opts for lots of muzak, adding to the sterile authenticity of a massive shopping and transit complex.  Jazz also plays an important element within the story, so it’s appropriately woven into the soundtrack as needed.

THE TERMINAL takes place entirely inside an airport, so it’s understandable that Spielberg’s preoccupation with aviation gets a heavy workout.  But rather than revel in the glory of flight, here Spielberg chooses to explore the surrounding infrastructure and sociology of airports.  International terminals are peculiar in that they are contained economies, under the jurisdiction of no particular country.  With their murky legal status, they’re the land equivalent of the High Seas—threatening to trap any one unfortunate enough to fall through the cracks.

Product placement plays a prominent role within the narrative, with Spielberg choosing to depict real brands and food chains as the arbiters of society in place of traditional governmental bodies.  It’s not lost on me that the most financially successful filmmaker of all time has no issue with the presence of corporate logos and branding in his work.  It stands to reason that a “corporate” director would take care of his own.  However, it’s important to note that Spielberg doesn’t include blatant product placement for an easy payday—it’s always in service to the story.  His approach has been consistent, all the way back to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), which postulated that the widespread iconography of corporate logos would be understood by a visiting alien race as a legitimate form of human communication.

Upon its release, THE TERMINAL was met with modest success and mostly positive reviews.  As an engaging and entertaining bit of cinema, it earns points for never trying to be anything more than what it is.  It’s a minor entry in Spielberg’s body of work, to be sure, but THE TERMINAL is a fresh breath of levity before the director would descend back into his gritty aesthetic with his next two projects.

THE TERMINAL is currently available on standard definition DVD from Dreamworks.

Credits:

Produced by: Laurie McDonald, Walter F. Parkes, Steven Spielberg

Written by: Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson

Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski

Production Designer: Alex McDowell

Editor: Michael Kahn

Music: John Williams