The Terminal Review

by Ryan Ellis (flickershows AT hotmail DOT com)
June 28th, 2004

The Terminal
by Ryan Ellis
June 23, 2004

My very own tagline---"Steven Spielberg presents, Cast Agump!"

Steven Spielberg must have held a seance and tried to pick the brains of the dead when he was working on 'The Terminal'. He's making every effort to channel Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, and perhaps even Howard Hawks. It's understandable that the Babe Ruth of modern filmmakers would want to try something he's never done before---a sophisticated romantic-comedy---and see if he can make it sing the way those screwball masters could. Yet for all the laughs in many of his best films ('Jaws', 'E.T.', and 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' are almost as funny as they are exciting), General Spielberg just doesn't to be the kind of guy who can relax into a full-blown comedy crossed with an opposites-attract love story. He doesn't fail miserably, but this is the man's poorest effort since 'Hook'.

He's gone very dark since the Kubrick-influenced 'A.I.', after doing some pretty dark stuff all through the '90s too. Ever since he went against his Peter Pan nature and tried to be an artist (some time back in the '80s after he became a responsible daddy, I guess), something has been missing. I adored 'Minority Report' and 'Schindler's List' & 'Saving Private Ryan' are two of the best pictures of the last decade, so why do I still yearn for the boy-genius who bicycled a rubber alien into the stratosphere? Is that gee-whiz guy long gone as the director himself nears 60? The gentle alien was crushed under the weight of Oscars and you have to wonder if Spielberg will ever open his heart that wide to an audience again. He might think he's lightening up with 'The Terminal', but what he's really doing is becoming ordinary. This living legend is way too talented to transform into just another director.

Tom Hanks is also a brand name. He's a giant star for good reason---dude can act. The one thing he hasn't done yet is what his buddy Steven has been doing for years now---venture into tumultuous, dark territory. Or does he do that all the time on film and I'm just not looking hard enough? If he's not losing his own life (usually in heroic fashion), then he's losing everything that means a damn to him. The way his character outlives nearly everyone he loves in 'The Green Mile' and 'Forrest Gump' is heartbreaking. He'll do it with nobility, but Tom Hanks was made to suffer on the big screen...and he doesn't always succeed in the end. 'Forrest Gump' and 'Cast Away' (both directed by Robert Zemeckis, who might have done some amazing things with 'The Terminal') are indeed the very definition of bitter-sweet movies.
So I'm wondering if Spielberg screened 'Gump' and 'Cast Away' in a five-hour marathon, thinking, "I can merge these two stories and, cripes, let's set it in an airport." That's basically what he's done. The recurring Hanksberg themes of a boy/man lost in the big, bad world and journeying against the odds to get home are front row centre in this 3rd co-venture in 6 years. As Viktor Navorski, the actor is stretching himself a bit with an accent and a noticeable weight gain, but he's played this character before. Indeed, this picture could be called 'Cast Agump'. And Viktor can go into the wax museum alongside Elliot, Indiana, Chief Brody, and many other Spielberg loners whose ultimate quest must be accomplished all alone.

Navorski is a single man, not-so-fresh off the plane from Krakhozia and landing at New York's JFK airport. When the government in his (fictional) country is overrun by a coup, Viktor is a man without a country. His passport & VISA are void and he can't set foot on an American sidewalk or go back to his inaccessible homeland. JFK's head honcho in customs, Frank Dixon (played with soap-soft arrogance by Stanley Tucci), struggles to communicate with a European who doesn't understand more than a half-dozen words of English. This SNAFU, this "crack in the system", means that Viktor must wait in the International Arrivals Lounge until Krakhozia settles its war-time affairs. It's quickly apparent that he's going to be stuck longer than a few days and must live in the terminal itself (this story is based on a man who was stranded in a French airport for years). He scrounges for food, makes friends, gets a job, and learns English, while sleeping in an empty Gate 67.
To pad such a simple story into a full-length feature requires all sorts of zany interludes and romantic entanglements. What squirrelly directors like Sturges or Zemeckis could have done with this premise! They might have shortened the running time, for one thing. Why can't big-time directors make tight, compact fluff pieces anymore? A subplot between two of Navorski's airport worker chums is cutesy-poo at best, unbelievable at worst. This movie runs out of rocket fuel at about the hour-and-a-half mark, yet there's still another 30 minutes more. The story of one man stuck in an airport for months has juice. Most of what Hanks does as a stranger in a strange land is interesting enough, even if his character is a little too saintly. But whenever the plot gears squeal into romance, this one-man-stranded picture plummets into modern rom-com claptrap.

The yummy Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Amelia, a stewardess with a hankering for married men. She bonds with our shy hero and they cautiously begin a G-rated relationship. Chemistry between Hanks & CZJ is just not there. It's like banging two wet rocks sparks. She plays it like she's pandering to a simpleton, but Amelia definitely doesn't deserve this big-hearted guy (who's pretty smart and has some remarkable construction skills). CZJ is not in fine form. They've made her look about as unglamorous as they could, short of siccing Freddy Krueger on her face. There's something off-putting about this actress. I'm not her biggest fan and I have yet to see evidence that her talent will come within 3 parsecs of her stunning beauty. That hardly would have mattered if she & Hanks seemed to belong together for even a single second. They don't and it crashes 'The Terminal'.

The whole movie is filled with an air of "look what these foreigners can do!". Yes, the impressive skills of immigrants are being wasted---the number of times we hear about a doctor from India driving a cab in New York is tragic---but the only major white American character in this film (Tucci) is an asshole. Non-white non-assholes (Chi McBride, Diego Luna, and Kumar Pallana) function as airport employees and as Navorski's best friends. Is this a Rainbow Coalition-type backlash against the "you're either with us or against us" backlash after 9/11? The last big-budget Hollywood pic to be so multi-culti was probably 'The Matrix Reloaded'. Then again, Hanks is a white American playing a European. All the same, the movie can't be accused of abject racism. It CAN be accused of dumbing things down with far too many pratfalls. Some of them work, but General Spielberg should have noticed when he's accomplished his mission to draw easy, cheesy laughs and move on.
A ruthless editor might have mined even more comedy out of this footage and cut back the failing love stuff. Michael Kahn is the man chopping the frames once again. In fact, just about all of Spielberg's constant collaborators worked on this flick. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski can only do so much with this gloomy setting. The picture is supposed to have that dull, overlit look that airports and shopping malls have, but my standing offer to nominate Kaminski for an Oscar every time he works with ol' Steven has been rescinded. The John Williams music score stuck in my head for about 2 hours, then I heard some of his other wonderful scores later that night and forgot all about this one. The movie is not badly made, although every single crew member has done better work with their director a half-dozen times before. Credit needs to go to Alex McDowell for his enormous set, though. Spielberg and Kaminski use every inch of it.

Jeff Nathanson and Sacha Gervasi wrote the script, adapting a story by Gervasi and Andrew Niccol. As with Spielberg's 'Catch Me If You Can' (also written by Nathanson), the writing is a bugaboo. First, why didn't Viktor just leave? The reason he's in New York in the first place is of monumental importance to him. When he gets the chance to walk out illegally---but with Dixon's permission---he doesn't. Now, I thought this moment would be the opportunity for the Hanks/CZJ "meet cute". He sees her, gets distracted, and doesn't want to go just yet, right? I expected that and could have accepted it. Nope, she doesn't interact with him until later. If you can think of a logical reason why this determined man doesn't smash the glass to get out those doors, e-mail it to the writers. And as for the revelation about what's in the peanut can... Well, it's mildly touching. It doesn't have enough world-shaking significance to be kept secret from us for so long, though.

The jokes are clever, but my shoulders didn't shake in full-out laughter more than twice. I guess I was pratfalled out very early. There was even a scene I immediately thought could have been twice as funny in a Simpsons-esque "double laugh" sort of way. Navorski rushes into the lady's room and we hear a shriek, so he bolts across camera into the men's room. Chuckle. Why not zing us with a bizarre joke and have a woman---or even a man!---shriek in the men's room too? That's screwball comedy, Mr. Spielberg. You were welcome to get a little nutty, but you should NOT have felt welcome to get all serious on us in the last reel. Alas, the final scenes were so damn imagination-free that I was able to lip-synch the closing line.
Once you strip away the generic rom-com deadweight, there's a decent little movie about a fish out of water. Nothing truly original happens to him, but there's no reason that a superstar team like Hanksberg shouldn't get the chance to dabble in creampuff piffles like everyone else. Ninety minutes of Hanks in this role could have been an early summer lightweight delight. Instead, at 2+ hours, 'The Terminal' out-stays its welcome.

This movie is about waiting. Everybody is waiting for something or someone else. If you rip the money out of your pocket to see it in the theatre, you might fall in love with Hanks and think I'm being a hardass. Hey, I liked HIM and I rooted for him. Somebody just needed to give his director a kick in the pants. If you're the biggest name in filmmaking since Hitchcock and you're venturing into Sturges/Lubitsch/Capra territory for the first time, the least you should do is open up that big heart and give your impersonal movie a touch of something we haven't seen before. I expected better than surface-level blah from the likes of Hanksberg.

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