The Terminal Review

by Harvey S. Karten (harveycritic AT cs DOT com)
June 12th, 2004


Reviewed by Harvey S. Karten
DreamWorks Pictures
Grade: B
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson, story by Andrew Niccol, Sacha Gervasi
Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna
Screened at: Beekman, NYC, 6/10/04

    There are few punishments more excruciating than waiting for a delayed flight. I recall having to slumber down for fourteen hours at JFK for a charter flight to Tenerife. We couldn't go home since the delayed flight could arrive from Logan Airport in Boston at any moment, then to continue on its way to New York to pick us up. Imagine having to wait for such a flight not for 13 hours, not even thirteen days, but for nine months! If one of Steven Spielberg's more earthbound films were not fiction, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) could easily make the Guinness Book of World Records for his plight. While in real life a guy in his predicament would probably be shuttled off to a federal detention center to await U.S. recognition for his country and thereby recertify his visa, Spielberg's imagination allows us easily to put ourselves into Viktor's well-worn shoes in a film that's part romance, part friendship, a microcosm of nothing less than the glorious diversity of the entire United States.

    In a screenplay by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, Spielberg takes us into the constricted world of Viktor Navorski who has come to New York for a purpose not disclosed until the story's concluding moments. (Hint: The answer lies in the tin of Planter's Peanuts that he carries around as a possible Maguffin.) His purpose in testing our waters is not important, however. What is significant is that when he arrives, his visa is not acceptable since his Eastern European country had undergone a coup while Viktor was airborne and, since the U.S. was to take its time in recognizing the new regime, he was for nine months a man without a country. The officious new head of homeland security at JFK, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), insisted that he not leave the terminal, that he must not step outside on American soil until the proper clearance is given by the federal government. (Never mind that the airport is "American soil.")

    The picture, then, shows us what we never saw on that "Cheers" episode in which Woody Harrelson, given a ticket to Europe, winds up spending all his time at the airport talking to visitors the world over and forgets about taking the trip. In short, during his extended delay, he becomes good buddies with a cross-section of working-class Americans–a security officer (Chi McBride), a janitor (Kuman Pallan), a member of the kitchen staff, and not necessarily the most important, a flight attendant, Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is a 39-year-old self-described mess because she continues to wait for her lover to quit his wife.

    Spielberg milks the story not only for physical humor (the janitor, Gupta Rajan, gets his jollies watching people slip and fall on his newly polished floor, for romance (Viktor takes Amelia to an Italian "restaurant," a makeshift place on a patio set up by his friends including some juggling for their entertainment), and or the important role that friendship plays in the lives of people who are not entirely fulfilled by their jobs.

    Most of all, though, "The Terminal" is Spielberg's love letter to America, land of glorious diversity, where bureaucratic bosses are creeps (Tucci in his usual villainous role goes by the book in refusing to let Viktor leave the airport), frustrating the honest needs of human beings for compassion. While the weaving is not as broad as that which makes a tapestry of "Schindler's List," Spielberg succeeds in professing his belief in the power of a single, ordinary individual made heroic by extraordinary circumstances. Viktor Novarski, like Oskar Schindler, has made the best of a bad situation, enriching the lives of all who make his acquaintance.

Rated PG-13. 123 minutes. Copyright 2004 by Harvey Karten
at [email protected]

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