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Wit and Whimsy: A Review of “The Terminal”

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by Conor Dickinson

When most people think of airports in this day and age, the first feeling they get might be fear. Airport terminals are places where we are frisked by security guards, hassled by customs officials, and wait anxiously as a voice over the loud speaker warns us to be wary of ownerless luggage. If fear isn’t the first feeling that comes over us, then it’s certainly boredom. Who hasn’t had to wait a seemingly interminable amount of time in an airport terminal waiting on a delayed connecting flight? Yet in “The Terminal,” director Steven Spielberg turns an airport into a wonderland of modernity, a Mecca of consumerism in which he finds sleek beauty.

A cynical mind might claim that Spielberg opportunely mines this territory for product placement money (is it any surprise that there’s a Verizon store prominently displayed, among others, and that the film co-starts Catherine Zeta Jones, Verizon’s spokeswoman?) Yet in the end, we are won over by Spielberg’s skill at subverting our expectations of the airport setting, just as we are won over by Viktor Naborski’s (Tom Hanks) strange Capra-esque, odyssey which criticizes governmental bureaucracy, while ultimately reaffirming man’s goodness in troubling times.

Viktor, played with humor and pathos by Tom Hanks, arrives in America and is refused permission to leave the airport because the fictitious Eastern European country he hails from has just had a military coup, and the U.S. government has not officially recognized their new government. Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the airport’s security czar, is unable to communicate to the non-English speaking Victor why he can’t leave, but does manage to get across the idea that he must not leave the confines of the airport. Dixon assumes that Victor will leave anyway, as any normal person would, and become someone else’s problem. The thought of leaving after he’s been told not to, never occurs to the innocent Victor, however, and he makes the airport into his home, befriending a multicultural and eccentric assortment of the lower rungs of airport personnel, romancing a beautiful, but unlucky in love flight attendant (in perhaps the film’s most implausible plot point), and eventually becoming something of an icon to the airport community.

The plot is farfetched and nonsensical (though it is “inspired” by a true story), but in a charmingly whimsical sort of way that makes the illogicality seem unimportant. The episodic structure weaves together sketches of Victor’s life as he manages to transform an impersonal airport into a cozy home. The Capra element is there, particularly with its populist admiration for “the common man,” but the film also significantly recalls Charlie Chaplin – in one scene Victor makes a bed for himself out of two rows of chairs and Spielberg shoots the funny scene in one long take, as Chaplin would have, allowing Hanks’ performance tell it all rather than using any unnecessary cinematic flourishing.

There are some very funny moments, several provided by Kumar Pallana, an Indian janitor whose sole pleasure in life is watching people slip after they’ve ignored his “Caution: Wet Floor” signs, too consumed in their cell phone conversations, or too preoccupied with rushing to get to their terminal on time, to ever bother looking up. Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay also wittily mines Viktor’s communication barrier, and Hanks does a wonderful job with his Eastern European accent (Hanks also amusingly mimicked the Southern accent in the abominable “The Ladykillers” earlier this year–Meryl Streep has a new competitor).

Unfortunately, the film looses steam in its final third. The episodic structure of “The Terminal” simply doesn’t build to any conclusion so it feels like one had to be tacked on. Also disappointing is a weak last minute revelation involving a mysterious box of peanuts that Viktor carries with him at all times.

The muddled message could also be troubling to some. The illogical plot would appear to serve as a perfect vehicle for wagging a finger at the increased, to the point of paranoia in Spielberg’s mind, red tape of airport security in post 9/11 America. Yet, thankfully perhaps, Spielberg’s heart doesn’t seem to be in the indictment. Much as in his underwhelming World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg can’t quite make up his mind what he thinks about his subject. “Saving Private Ryan” opens with a horrific battle scene which suggests that war is hellish and completely dehumanizing, then utilizes an anti-war plot (in which eight men are sent to risk their lives to save one man), and ends as a mildly patriotic war picture meant as a salute to America’s veterans. Some might find this frustrating, but while the film itself is deeply flawed, its ambivalence is its most admirable aspect. In “The Terminal,” Frank Dixon symbolizes cold, robotic bureaucracy, yet even he is humanized, and most of the security guards and agents are presented as decent people just doing their jobs.

Likewise, one isn’t sure what to make of the theme of consumerism. When Viktor asks Frank what he’s supposed to do in the terminal as he waits for a new visa, Frank replies curtly, “the only thing you can do: shop.” Depending on one’s point of view, one could either be offended by Spielberg’s reduction of American culture to a vast shopping mall, or instead be appalled by the way he actually seems to embrace it. Spielberg has always seen the aesthetic beauty and emotional comfort of American suburban cultural hegemony, as displayed in the way he lovingly photographs Elliot’s neighborhood in which all the houses look the same in “E.T.” or the way he uses children’s toys appearing to come to life to forewarn us of alien contact in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

“The Terminal” provides many laughs as well as some (perhaps unintentional) food for thought. While it won’t live on in the public consciousness like the Frank Capra or Charlie Chaplin films it is inspired by, it’s an entertaining couple of hours that may make you smile when you leave the theater, and will certainly provide a breath of fresh air from the typical assortment of dumb comedies and special effects extravaganzas that summer films usually offer us.

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