'Terminal' Stuck at The Gate
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004; Page C01
"The Terminal" is minor Spielberg on a major budget. On a gigantic set re-creating an international airline facility, right down to the napkins at the Burger King and the Stephen King novels in the revolving rack at Borders, the great American director tells a discordant, unsatisfying, sometimes emotionally incoherent story about loss, hope, redemption and taking showers at the sink.
Tom Hanks, ever adorable in that lumpy Everyguy way of his, plays a visitor from a mythical Eastern European country that, while he's in the air, essentially ceases to exist. Thus he ceases to exist. He cannot enter the United States because he has no valid passport, and he cannot return home because he has no valid country. So, as the movie has it, he spends a year in a hell only a Samuel Beckett could imagine: the arrival concourse.
Hanks is great; the movie isn't. In the first place, you never buy into the premise. Certainly, you think, a deal could be reasonably worked out and a sensible customs and immigration bureaucracy would find some way to grant this hapless potato a temporary visa. It's never credible that they'd just let him stay there, for a year, homeless, without visible means of support, living in some kind of conveniently abandoned gate remodeling project. (There was a somewhat similar real-life case in a Paris airport -- but that's, you know, France.)
You can feel Steven Spielberg's impulse toward mimicry, particularly in the early going. At first the film seems almost like a high-tech "Cast Away," in which Hanks's Viktor Navorski is like his character in that movie: alone on an island, trying desperately to survive, coming up with brilliant improvisations. At least he doesn't have a meaningful emotional relationship with a volleyball.
Another inspiration seems to be -- desert islands, again -- J.M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton," which argued that in a state of nature, social distinctions break down and the true aristocrats of the species emerge. And that's a pretty good description of Hanks's Navorski: He turns out to have little time for self-pity, but just sets to work to quickly build himself a decent life. He's a natural aristocrat with a deep humanity and a vivid morality to boot. He's resilient, resourceful, compassionate, without rancor or aggression. He won't steal, he won't beg, he won't disobey. He plays by the rules, and within the rules soon flourishes, winning the hearts and minds of the "little people" of the terminal support staff, bringing his sunshine to their beleaguered lives. He's like a being beamed down from the Planet of Eternal Optimism, lightening and brightening the world, circumscribed though it may be, wherever he goes. You think I overstate? You ought to watch Spielberg overstate!
But the main stylistic influence seems to be Frank Capra. This is the most ostentatious old-movie re-creation Spielberg has done since "Always," his 1989 remake of "A Guy Named Joe," and you can feel him struggling to achieve the brilliant tonal balance and minutely detailed orchestration of payoffs that Frank Capra was able to cram into his legendary paeans to the little guy standing up to the forces of corrupt bureaucracy, such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and so forth. But he has much less luck than Capra -- or, I suppose, less skill.
The movie is really all subplot, start to finish, and of the four or five narrative arcs it tracks, three or four simply don't work. The early evocation of the culture of the Terminal, its physical environs, its limits, its possibilities, all that is fine. It gets exactly the weird vibration of gigantic civic architecture, that sense of faux warmth and brightness artificially inserted into huge, dead, industrial space. Viktor's acceptance into "little people" culture, particularly as he woos and wins janitors, waiters, clerks and contractors to his side, is fine.But then it begins to go off kilter. The ugliness of the federal officers -- personified by an officious Stanley Tucci -- seems uncalled for and particularly unhelpful, as these men have incredibly difficult jobs, balancing efficiency against security during a time of terror. They should be the heroes, not the villains.
Then there comes a point where the script requires Viktor to serve as a kind of matchmaker between a young food service worker (Diego Luna) and a young female customs officer. This one is way miswired: the young actress in the part, Zoe Saldana, is probably the best thing in the film -- warm, beautiful and wonderfully accessible behind her uniform. And she and Hanks have the best chemistry; you want, somehow, for them to connect because they take such deep pleasure in each other and they seem so brilliantly suited.
Instead, once the matchmaking transaction is fulfilled she's exiled from the story, which in turn comes to settle, for romantic tension, on Viktor's attempts to woo a fast, beautiful international flight attendant named Amelia Warren, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. This one never begins to work. La Zeta-Jones is offered as one of those aging beauties who've seen too much and done too much and spent too much time with handsome but married men. Yeah, another one of those; it's as if she's wandered in from a David Mamet play about Hollywood. Besides the cliche disparagement of flight attendants, the character feels too brittle and modern for the rest of the movie, and I never believed for a second that the redemption of decency and honor Viktor is offering her would have a whisper of success. I suppose she represents the America that poor Viktor can yearn for but never inhabit, but that symbolic meaning has no weight when the scenario supporting it is so incredible.
Then there's the payoff. This is the part that Frank Capra hit out of the park every time: Remember Zuzu's petals. Boy, if you're not weeping then, you're the Tin Man. In Spielberg's concoction, the emotional weight of the movie is concealed in the reason for Viktor's visit, which is itself concealed in a Planters Peanuts can he carries. Its mysterious meaning -- this is so old-movie -- teases us for an hour and a half. You know it'll be something that socks you right in the puss: Dad's ashes, Mom's diamond ring, dead brother's Medal of Honor, cousin's sister's address, key to a safety deposit box crammed with original Haloid stock . . . something. But it's practically nothing. The balloon deflates, the air goes out of the sails and you think: That's what this has been about?
Yeah, sorry: That's what this has been about.
The Terminal (128 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild sexual content and language.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Tom Hanks is stranded in an airline terminal for a year but makes the best of it -- and the plot.
(Merrick Morton -- Dreamworks Via AP)