Viktor Navorski (Hanks) lands at JFK airport, to find his homeland of Krakozhia has dissolved in a rebellion and his passport is no longer valid. Stranded in a bureaucratic no-man’s land, he must live in the airport, unable to go home, unable to venture onto American soil…
You may have got the wrong idea about The Terminal. You might be thinking it’s another splashy romantic comedy with Tom Hanks back on home turf, goofing off in a funny accent and lifting those puppy-dogs in the direction of brittle, lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones. Well, Sleepless At Gate 67 it ain’t.
For Steven Spielberg, in later career, is having a whale of a time mixing up his native crowdpleasing with a caustic independent spirit. Yes, The Terminal is funny, romantic and sentimental, but inside Spielberg’s purpose-built airport lounge, an open-plan cathedral of endless flux, he’s channelling both Capra and Kafka. This is a post-millennial fable about how the world really kinda sucks.
The plot itself is loose-limbed, a vague blend of quest (to get out of the damn airport), survival and romance. It makes you think of Cast Away, while the posters, with their lone journeyman Hanks, recall the sap and charm of Forrest Gump. Yet this graceful satire feels more in touch with The Shawshank Redemption, where the looming prison boasts its own sushi bars and Borders superstore, but is every bit as repressive.
Navorski must live by his wits or go under, and in the slow churn of Hanks’ expert performance lies the movie’s substance, a subtle process of unpeeling a goofball tourist, located somewhere between Charlie Chaplin and Andy Kaufman, to reveal a singular man of purpose; direct, noble, irrepressible, and so very un-American. It’s a brilliant deception, forcing us to confront the rash judgement that all English-deficient travellers are basically idiots.
Less effective, though, is Navorski’s role as romancer. Wearing his heart on the sleeve of a new Hugo Boss suit, he woos listless, man-troubled stewardess Zeta-Jones, who is drawn to his honesty, failing to register this curious person as anything more than a frequent flier. Half the world, it seems, is to some extent trapped in an airport.
Never Spielberg’s forte, the romance unfortunately feels false, too removed from the movie’s menacing undertow. So he sensibly keeps it sidelined from the ongoing duel with Tucci’s brusque commandant. In a delicious performance, the vibrant actor underscores the required weaselling with an understanding that rules are necessary. Navorski, to his mind, represents chaos — a slipping cog in vital clockwork. In many ways, he’s right.
The film also traverses a wonderful array of supporting players, immigrant workers caught on the fringes of life with whom Navorski finds communion. In one throwaway yet spellbinding sequence, Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pallana, as a perpetually agitated Indian cleaner, displays a sublime knack for plate-spinning and juggling hoops. It’s a welcome burst of surreal indulgence, both hilarious and poignant, a new type of ‘Spielberg moment’.
Away from the knots of dramedy, you can sit back and drink in the director’s effortless class. His camera glides, feather-light, across this multi-storied shopping mall, keeping pace with the ebb and flow of passengers, Navorski the one static point of focus. There is a dazzling use of reflection, impossible shots in mirrors and glass panels; everything in the terminal is a reflection of the real America, a microcosm of the capitalist wonderland outside the doors.
And it’s very evident that the last thing Navorski’s chasing in the world — a bitter, unreliable place — is this dubious American Dream that comes wrapped in Cellophane, emblazoned with logos and wrung-dry by corporate red tape. Without giving anything away, the last line says it all: “Take me home.”
Far less cuddly than expected, this unusual and elegant movie may have failed to connect with US audiences but it proves Spielberg is currently the most unpredictable director in Hollywood.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan