The Terminal Review

by Robin Clifford (robin AT reelingreviews DOT com)
June 21st, 2004

"The Terminal"

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives in New York's JFK airport just as a violent coup shakes his country of Krakozhia. Suddenly, he is a man without a country and head customs official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) tells Viktor "America is closed." The now-refugee must live in a limbo state and fend for himself until his problems are resolved and, for now, he must fritter away his life in "The Terminal."

US Customs strips Viktor of his ticket home and his now-invalid passport, gives him food vouchers and a pass to the international terminal's facilities and sets him lose with the order that he must not go outside the exit door. Being a good Krakozhian citizen, he follows the rules, much to the chagrin and aggravation of acting field commissioner Dixon, who considers Viktor a bureaucratic glitch that he simply wants to be free of. Dixon tries everything he can to get Navorski out of his thinning hair and into the hands of some other government authority but, as days turn into months, he is stuck with Viktor.

Viktor's first days of exile are spent in basic survival mode. He loses his food chits when an airport maintenance worker, Gupta (Kumar Pallana, "The Royal Tenenbaums"), sweeps them into his bin and won't let Viktor look for them…unless he has an appointment. Now foodless, Viktor must live off the land and subsists on condiments and crackers. He soon figures out that there is money to be made returning luggage trolleys and he starts to get the cash needed to survive. That is, until Dixon puts the kibosh on that plan to try to force Viktor out of his airport.

Still, Navorski makes a home for himself in the unfinished Gate 67 of the international terminal and, every day, takes his pass and his exit form to a pretty young Customs officer, Dolores Torres (Zoe Saldana, "Drumlines"), who feels for Viktor's plight but must do her duty, stamping his forms with "Denied" in bright red. A driver for the airport food service, Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna, "Open Range"), has a crush on Dolores and enlists Viktor, with the promise of all the free food he can eat, to be his matchmaker. Now, the hapless traveler has a place to sleep, plenty of food and new friends. When he takes it upon himself to begin finishing the construction work on Gate 67, he does such a good job that the foreman hires him on the spot with cash under the table. Now, Viktor has plenty of money, too.

The only thing left to make Viktor's exile completely tolerable is to find romance and it arrives in the guise of beautiful flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). His chivalrous act earns him a smile and, as their paths keep crossing, a mutual interest develops, though Viktor does not tell her of his ordeal, just that his is delayed. Amelia is a 39-year old, relationship-challenged single woman who can't commit and this is the weakest of the several stories revolving around Viktor. Zeta-Jones's presence in "The Terminal" seems to be just to add some star power to the proceeds and the romance between Viktor and Amelia never rings true.

This is not to say that the other plot lines are any more convincing. Stanly Tucci's Dixon seems to be a man of malice but moments of compassion peek out once in a while. In one scene, he enlists Viktor to translate during a particularly tense moment when a passenger tries to smuggle medicine out of the country without proper paperwork. Viktor intercedes and uses his hard won knowledge of Customs rules to give the near-suicidal man a way to bring the medicine home to his Eastern European country. Dixon's allowing the rule infraction makes the character a bit more human but also less consistent.

The matchmaking between Enrique and Dolores also has a false quality as the young man uses Viktor as his conduit to getting her hand in marriage. It's a cute notion but one that feels manufactured since Enrique doesn't appear to actually meet Dolores until after she accepts his proposal through Viktor.

The draw for "The Terminal" lay solely on the shoulders of its star. Tom Hanks, once again, shows his tremendous acting ability and here takes on the task, a la Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice," in creating a realistic accent and, convincingly, speaking a foreign language like a native. Viktor Navorski, when he arrives on these shores, knows little English beyond "where is Nike store." But, as we get to know the man it is obvious that he is capable, talented and smart, using his copious free time in exile to learn English fluently. The actor is a pleasure to watch and, if things were tightened up story-wise, this could have been a vehicle to drive Mr. Hanks to another Oscar nom. The throwaway story, by Jeff Nathanson and Sacha Gervasi, isn't tight enough to give "The Terminal" much resonance and Hanks's performance will likely be swallowed up by the competition by the year's end. Still, Viktor is many good things like matchmaker, local hero, loyal friend, romantic figure and artisan – not a bad character and well played.

Production values, as one should expect – nay, demand – of a Steve Spielberg film, are of the highest quality and craftsmanship. Foremost is the stunning production design by Alex McDowell, who led his team in creating a full size airport international terminal with its working escalators, huge glass windows, food court and mini mall. More than 35 companies, from Verizon Wireless to Brookstone to Burger King to the requisite Starbucks are expertly represented. Long time Spielberg collaborator, lenser Janusz Kaminski, brings his expertise to all facets of the film, using harder blues and whites for the color palettes early on to show the clinical aspect of airport life, then warmer tones come out as Viktor gets comfortable with his new "home." Mary Zophres's costume design is dead on in the diversity that one would see in a real international airport terminal.

This is not one of Steven Spielberg's best efforts, mainly due to script weak points, but "The Terminal" certainly reinforces that he is one of the masters of Hollywood filmmaking. It is a too long, but entertaining, little yarn that is a good showcase, once again, for Tom Hanks. I give it a B-.

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