A comedy about a stateless Eastern European tourist stranded indefinitely in the limbo of Kennedy International Airport, The Terminal sounds—at least on paper—like it might be director Steven Spielberg’s exercise in Beckett lite. Fear not, it isn’t even Minority Report lite. “After Catch Me If You Can,” the press notes quote the filmmaker, “I wanted to do another movie that could make you laugh and cry and feel good about the world.”
To that end, Tom Hanks’s Viktor Navorski first appears as a real goat-fucker, stooped, grizzled, and no doubt smelly, clutching a rusty Planters Peanuts tin and babbling in an invented Slavic language as he attempts to clear U.S. customs. When it develops that a coup in Viktor’s (imaginary) Krakozhia homeland has effectively invalidated his visa, he shaves his stubble and graduates to increasingly accomplished, cutely accented English. It’s a role that might once have bellowed Robin Williams, and indeed, Hanks’s stranger in a strange land bears a more than passing resemblance to the repellently cloying Russian immigrant Williams played in the Reagan-era heart-warmer Moscow on the Hudson.
Part genius and part idiot, at once the hero and victim of globalism, Viktor inhabits the airport the way Robinson Crusoe (or Hanks’s character in Cast Away) did his desert island—although, unlike Crusoe, he is quite diffident when the terminal’s exasperated security boss, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), gives him several opportunities to sail through the doors into New York. In the movie’s most evocative scene, the terminal serves as a huge Skinner box in which Viktor is monitored as he learns which buttons to press to get refunded quarters. Hanks exhibits a certain physical grace, particularly in his pas de deux with a surveillance camera.
Less solitary than Crusoe, Viktor finds multiple Man Fridays. He bonds with a multi-ethnic band of buddies—the most memorably offensive of whom is Kumar Pallana’s paranoid little janitor. Pushing the scenario toward workplace sitcom, these elves facilitate Viktor’s platonic romance with a gorgeous, sweetly neurotic stewardess (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while upholding the traditional notion of America as melting pot, Viktor’s difficulties with the customs cops notwithstanding.
“The country’s detaining so many people there’s no goddamn room anywhere,” Dixon says—writing a check that The Terminal would never cash. Despite its inane premise (the full idiocy of which isn’t disclosed until late in the movie) and numerous incidental illogicalities, the film was inspired by a real situation, namely that of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian-born traveler who—having lost his documents—has been living on a red plastic bench at Charles de Gaulle Airport since 1988 (and although for some years free, refuses to leave). The case has prompted two previous movies, a 1993 French comedy and a 2001 British-made hall-of-mirrors doc, in which Nasseri plays himself. DreamWorks also paid Nasseri for the rights to his story—which has been denuded of its rich absurdity.
Antic without being funny, The Terminal‘s attempts at humor are largely predicated on calculating how many pratfalls can be derived from a wet floor. The enormous set is an engineering marvel—and it’s not just an IQ test for Viktor. While one can only imagine what Jacques Tati would have done with this arena, Spielberg uses it mainly for product placement. (There’s no one better at inserting a TV image or a corporate logo.) Relentlessly behaviorist, the filmmaker seldom fails to pat the puppy and, applying John Williams’s melodic treacle, woo the viewer with cheap sentiment.
The press release quotes Spielberg’s boilerplate assertion that he “had an immediate affinity for Viktor’s story.” While it would be fascinating to know what he means, it’s clear that The Terminal reflects the post–9-11 airport angst that all passengers have experienced. To that end, making Viktor a Middle Eastern, a South Asian, or even a Bosnian tourist would have given this trite exercise an edge—and a measure of human pathos.