Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2004, USA, 128 mins
Review By Martyn Bamber
Steven Spielberg’s latest film may surprise audiences who are expecting a science fiction/fantasy adventure along the lines of A.I. Artificial Intelligence or Minority Report. The Terminal is a relatively low key comedy/drama that’s neither a purely escapist fantasy like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park, nor a film rooted in historical fact like Schindler’s List or Amistad. Some people may approach Spielberg’s latest film as a romantic comedy, but it’s closer in spirit to the director’s classic E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, a sentimental fantasy based in the real world.
In E.T. , an alien visitor was trapped on Earth and had to both fend for himself and use his initiative to survive. In The Terminal, the ‘alien visitor’ is Viktor Navorski (Hanks), who flies to the US and lands at New York’s JFK airport. However, before he gets a chance to leave the airport, he discovers that war has broken out in his home country. Because of this, Viktor’s country is no longer officially recognised by the US authorities and he finds himself trapped in limbo; unable to return home and unable to enter America . The only option given to him by airport customs officer Dixon (Tucci) is to wait in the airport until he is given permission to go home or officially enter the United States. Adapting to these unusual circumstances, Viktor sets up home in the airport terminal and befriends a variety of airport staff and an airline stewardess (Zeta-Jones).
Dixon sees Viktor as an irritating and disruptive presence, and is perplexed when Viktor doesn’t just leave the airport and enter the US illegally. Eventually, Dixon embarks on a crusade to try and get rid of Viktor, but Viktor has a strong reason to visit the US and he will not be put off by Dixon’s schemes or any of the other potential obstacles that stand in his way.
The film’s twee tone and Viktor’s relentless optimism in the face of continual adversity will no doubt irritate some members of the audience, who may be annoyed that Spielberg does not take a more sober, realistic approach to the issues of asylum and immigration that dominate news headlines. However, it is made clear that Viktor is not an illegal immigrant or an asylum seeker, but a legal visitor to the US who finds himself unwittingly caught up in the bureaucracy of the immigration system. The Terminal isn’t telling an anguished tale of immigration, in the vein of In This World or Dirty, Pretty Things. Spielberg’s worldview has always been relentlessly optimistic, even when his characters are faced with terrible hardship and adversity.
Although the treatment of immigrants and visitors to the US is shown to be tough, it also shows that there is hope for people who try their best to live and work in America. Spielberg doesn’t find fault with the system; instead it is people like Dixon, who strictly adhere to the system without question, who are the real problem. The focus is mainly on Viktor, who may be from a fictional European country, but isn’t representative of any particular nation. He is the archetypal everyman familiar from so many Spielberg films and an outsider who shows courage and determination in the face of adversity. Spielberg’s perennial themes also emerge as the drama unfolds; the importance of communication and connection in order to understand others and survive, the pain of separation, the importance of family and the longing to return home.
The fact that the majority of the film is spent in the artificial confines of an airport terminal may indicate to some people that Spielberg views America as artificial, with shops everywhere that make the terminal resemble a nondescript shopping mall, full of people who never stop long enough to enjoy life. But Spielberg is not a cynic and he doesn’t take simple pot-shots at American life. Instead, the airport in The Terminal is an almost magical place where people from all over the world are brought together and where their problems can be shared and solved. Does this make the film schmaltzy and far-fetched? Perhaps, but with it’s scenes of slapstick comedy, a fairytale romance and a clearly defined good guy versus bad guy conflict, The Terminal is more like fable than a realistic depiction of an outsider’s harsh treatment by American authorities.
Although Viktor’s life in the terminal is difficult, it’s shown to be infinitely preferable to Dixon’s life, which mainly consists of him sitting in a room full of surveillance cameras (an echo of Tom Cruise’s proficient, but emotionally cold policeman from Minority Report). Whereas Viktor gets to know many of the people at the airport personally and strikes up a number of memorable friendships, Dixon only seems to be able to function when he observes events through his security cameras. Dixon may be omnipotent here, but when he has to confront a situation outside his office he is unable to deal with people face-to-face.
Tucci’s Dixon is a memorable creation and more than just another uncaring representative of authority. Even though Dixon comes close to turning into an hysterical buffoon in the latter stages of the film, Tucci still makes us sympathise to some degree with this man, who is under pressure to prove himself in a new job, but who is constantly bugged by Viktor’s presence.
As for Zeta-Jones’ flight attendant, she may regularly pass through the airport, but she never stays in one place long enough to build up lasting friendships or stable relationships. Because Viktor’s unusual circumstances keep him in the terminal, he gains a unique perspective on the place and the people, and so he learns to understand and appreciate the airport and the characters he meets there.
Hanks’ performance may be dismissed by many as a virtual re-run of his character in Forrest Gump, but Viktor is not as naïve as Gump. Viktor is perceived in this way by Dixon and others because of his initial difficulties when trying to communicate in English. However, as the story develops, Hanks shows Viktor to be a proud man who learns to survive on his wits and to adapt to his highly unusual circumstances.
The Terminal could have been ponderous, with every shot and line loaded with significance, but Spielberg is not heavy-handed. Like his previous film Catch Me If You Can, there’s a lightness of touch and a breeziness that moves the film along effortlessly from one scene to the next. Spielberg gracefully glides the camera around the terminal as we follow Hanks through the confines of his new ‘home’. He also stages some terrific moments, including an extended dinner date between Hanks and Zeta-Jones that has been magically set up by Viktor, with the help of his friends in the airport.
Although some moments border on the over-sentimental and one or two subplots feel rushed (including a lengthy build up to a romance between two terminal employees that is resolved very quickly), The Terminal is ultimately another satisfying film from Spielberg and another fascinating change of pace for a filmmaker who can make any film that he wants, but who refuses to rest on his laurels or churn out copies of his past successes.