Terminal Velocity

Steven Spielberg’s melodramatic The Terminal never quite takes off.

Terminal goes nowhere fast

Taxicab confession: I used to love hanging out in airports—before 9/11, that is, when the real world began to intrude and it was impossible to wander around staring voyeuristically at all the attractive and/or interesting people hurrying to or from places I’d never see. After 9/11, there would be guards who’d look at me funny; I was a potential terrorist instead of just an anonymous weirdo. I miss those airport days. When I got tired of looking at people, I’d watch planes take off and land, or just use the bustle as white noise and get a ton of reading or writing done. Airports are a pleasant combination of chaos and order, sweat-stained humanity and sterility. Starbucks ain’t no substitute.

This all has absolutely nothing to do with The Terminal (DreamWorks), the new Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks comedy—although I wish it did, because the movie would be better with a dash of airport fetishism. In his last film, Catch Me if You Can (2002), Spielberg caught the spirit of that epicenter of finger-popping ‘60s cool, the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at JFK Airport, complete with Sinatra singing “Come Fly With Me.” The story of a con man without a country, that movie was larky and sad in the same breath; the prospect of Spielberg making a whole film in a terminal, exploring it top to bottom as a kind of ecosystem through the eyes of a non-English-speaker who’s marooned, seemed too good to be true. It was. The Terminal isn’t a disaster, but after an entertaining start it congeals into something icky and fake, and it leaves you thinking that Spielberg and his team of screenwriters (Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, from a story by Andrew Niccol and Gervasi) missed the real story.

Hanks is Viktor Navorski, a non-English-speaker from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia. He looks heavy and pasty in his ill-fitting suit (so much for that Cast Away diet!), and he hands his passport to the customs officer like a guy who long ago made his peace with giving papers to men in uniforms. He doesn’t even seem put out when he’s taken to the airport security official Frank Dixon (Stanely Tucci) and his uniformed aide, Thurman (Barry Shabaka Henley), who briskly explain that his government has been overthrown in a coup and his passport is no longer valid. Dixon ends that scene by informing Viktor—who of course doesn’t understand a word except “Krakozhia”—that he has fallen into a void: He can’t fly back and he can’t enter the United States. He is “unacceptable.” The airport (it’s obviously supposed to be JFK) will be Viktor’s home.

It sounds implausible, but there was an Iranian stranded in France’s Charles de Gaulle airport under similar circumstances—he’s still there, in fact, refusing to leave, having possibly lost his mind. Even if it were implausible, though, the theme is irresistible: adaptation. Here is a hero who’s hopelessly out of his element, yet through doggedness and smarts and a primal survival instinct, he becomes a master of a new environment. We’re more used to adaptation stories in the Robinson Crusoe mode, like Cast Away (2000). Here Hanks’ island cave is a gate that’s under construction. Viktor breaks up some seats for a bed and cuts the fuse on those awful fluorescents and the speakers spewing Muzak (the song is “Stranger in Paradise,” ho ho). He figures out that returning luggage carts to their racks will generate quarters, which he uses to buy fast food. He picks up some pidgin English, he gets to know the employees, and he learns How Things Work at a capitalist airport.

So far, so fun. Hanks does good, subtle physical comedy (Viktor’s an innocent, not an idiot), and Spielberg treats the airport as a multileveled toy store teeming with exotic creatures. The director and star have a greater time with scenes in which Viktor plays hide-and-seek with security cameras. But The Terminal begins to edge into a tiresome brand of melodrama: First Tucci’s Dixon becomes a villain, not just callously indifferent to Viktor’s plight but actively malevolent, driven mad by his desire to know what the Krakozhian carries in a rusty Planter’s peanut can. Then Viktor turns into a populist folk hero among the immigrants, minorities, and minimum wagers: now he facilitates the romance of a food service worker (Diego Luna) and a customs agent (Zoe Saldana); now he rescues a distraught Russian trying to carry medicine from Canada to his sick father; now he makes peace with a misanthropic janitor (Kumar Pallana, from The Royal Tenenbaums); now he woos the unlucky-in-love flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. This Chaplinesque sweetie warms the hearts of everyone but Tucci, that meanie. And when he finally reveals what’s in that peanut can … Well, that’s when I gave up on the movie.   

After a decade (the ‘80s) when he frequently veered into mawkishness, Spielberg has at last learned to soft-pedal the shlock, and not every subplot here ends happily. Zeta-Jones doesn’t go soft on her weak-willed character, who’s hopelessly smitten with a married man (Michael Nouri), and Tucci almost—almost—makes you credit Dixon’s absurd logic. (If he really wanted to be head of airport security, he’d bring in the press and make himself a tabloid hero; he wouldn’t let this poor Krakozhian wander the airport making him look impotent.) But most of the payoffs are cheap, and Spielberg’s tastefulness doesn’t save from fatuousness the vision of smiling little people (many of them dark) throwing in their lot with Viktor against the Man.

The filmmakers built an entire airport terminal in California for this movie, complete with real stores (lots of product tie-ins!), huge banks of lights, and matte paintings of the distant cityscape. Everyone who walked onto the set was reportedly blown away, even hard-to-blow-away people like Spielberg. But you know what? It looks like an airport. They should have rented.

For all the lip service it gives to the idea of Homeland Security, The Terminal misses the chance to explore the divided feelings that airports and the arrival of foreigners have on us post-9/11, in which everything romantic and open-ended (and, for that matter, fetishistic) about air travel has become permeated with dread. The world explodes, but bland and semidelusional Hollywood sentimentality, that’s a comforting constant.