"THE TERMINAL" reminds you that Steven Spielberg is -- to borrow a phrase from novelist Arundhati Roy -- moviemaking's god of small things.

He's doomed to be forever associated with enormous mechanical sharks, giant spaceships and hulking animatronic dinosaurs. But the director -- surely our film culture's Norman Rockwell -- knows about the telling gesture, the symbol, the buildup, the silence and the subtle roots of a scene. Unlike other merchants of big, such as Jerry Bruckheimer, he knows how to put special effects and big scenes in human context.

It's the terrified look in Roy Scheider's eyes as he waits for the shark that makes "Jaws" as powerful as the big fish itself. When Richard Dreyfuss becomes obsessed with building a giant mound of earth in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the stricken expression in the eyes of his children raises the emotional ante. And in "Jurassic Park," that scary introduction of the T. Rex is indelibly carved in our memories thanks to his reflection caught in a car's side mirror, the one that says: "Objects are closer than they appear."

With nothing bigger than a jet plane hovering in the background, Spielberg has made a small and charming story out of "The Terminal." Set exclusively in an international-arrivals terminal at New York's JFK International Airport, the movie doesn't have a terrorist in sight. No ticking time bomb, no clock set to a doomsday deadline, no SWAT teams. Just a tall tale full of warm and fuzzy characters. In a way, it's the perfect follow-up to Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can," another modestly set drama that involves airplanes.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a resident of the (fictional) country of Krakozhia (somewhere in that former Soviet Union corner of the planet) with virtually no command of English is caught up in something he doesn't understand. He has just flown into JFK. And suddenly he's being led into the office of the airport supervisor, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci).

Frank tries to explain to Viktor. While he was in the air, a military coup took place in Krakozhia. Thus, his country is temporarily without official identity. Legally, it doesn't exist. Viktor's nationality, visa status and everything else are frozen. He cannot set foot in the United States until a new government establishes itself.

"Imagine these potato chips are Krakozhia," says Dixon, pointing to a bag of chips on his desk. He holds up an apple. "This apple represents the Liberty rebels."

Frank brings the apple down on the bag with a resounding bang. Chips go flying into the air.

"You are, at this time, simply unacceptable."

Viktor's new home is . . . the terminal. And so begins a physically claustrophobic yet highly entertaining caper set in a mini-universe of Starbucks, Borders, escalators and pushcarts. Gradually, Viktor starts to see the lay of the land, its permanent staffers and the regular passers-through.

There are attendants, such as the food-services grunt (Diego Luna) who enlists Viktor to get him a date with a female customs officer (Zoe Saldana). There's Gupta (Kumar Pallana), an Indian floor cleaner who delights in watching people slip on his wet floors. And most significantly for Viktor is flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who's forever coming and going, but always meeting the same married man. After getting to know Viktor, she begins to realize she can look for a man who's gentle, not to mention single.

Watching all of Viktor's social encounters is shifty-eyed Frank, a humorless and literal-minded bureaucrat who's up for a promotion. He watches Viktor with concern; wondering how he can get rid of this guy without breaking the law or messing up his ambition to become the airport's field commissioner.

The movie does have its cheese factor. He's Steven Spielberg, not Stanley Kubrick, as we found out in "Artificial Intelligence: A.I." But "The Terminal" is also delicately funny and inventive, thanks to writers Andrew ("The Truman Show") Niccol, Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson (who wrote "Catch Me if You Can"), and of course the director himself.

There are fine little touches everywhere: "Strangers in the Night" playing faintly in the background as Viktor builds a makeshift bed out of chairs on his first night in the terminal; or the frenzied intensity in the security room as Frank and his underlings watch Viktor's movements by closed-circuit camera. At one point, Viktor is faced with a side door that offers easy escape into America. Frank is hoping Viktor will walk through the door, thereby relieving him of his responsibilities. But Viktor isn't quite sure. He looks at the door, checks around, then takes a couple of steps backward. "Guess he's trying to get a running start," hypothesizes Frank. Viktor's hesitation and Frank's agony continue; and it's just one of many such appealing and entertaining moments to come.

THE TERMINAL (PG-13, 128 minutes) -- Contains mild sexual content. Area theaters.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) tries to make himself at home at JFK International Airport after his flight back home is delayed -- indefinitely -- in "The Terminal," directed by Steven Spielberg.