The Terminal

© 2004 Ray Wong

Halfway through THE TERMINAL, you can’t help but feel that something is weird here. The story, the people and the settings all seem real enough, but there is just something surreal about the whole experience.

Then you realize, even though the film is supposed to be based on a true story, it is really a fantasy.

Viktor Navorski is a tourist from Krakozia, an Eastern European country in political turmoil. Once he lands in JFK, he learns that his country has fallen into a coup and a war has broken out. He is informed by Homeland Security officer Frank Dixon that he is now an “unacceptable,” with no country to return to and forbidden to step onto American soil. Viktor is, however, free to roam inside the International arrivals lounge.

One day turns into weeks, then months. The story follows Viktor through his nine month’s overstay, during which he learned English by reading guide books and watching TV, making the best of his situation. His life intertwines with many colorful characters, including the beautiful but confused flight attendant Amelia.

THE TERMINAL is one of those rare American films (especially from master storytellers such as Spielberg) where the plot takes a backseat to the characters and settings. Nevertheless, you care about the protagonist, and you want to see what happens to him. The central suspense is: will he succeed in seeing America? The real joke, of course, is that he has seen America within the confines of the terminal. Product placements pop up everywhere: Starbucks, Borders, Burger King, the Discovery Store, Brookstone, Coca Cola, etc. and the people Viktor meets span a wide spectrum of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Oh yes, Viktor takes not sips, but gulps of the American idiosyncrasies.

The story is simple enough, and you never lose track of who the good and bad guys are. That is, perhaps, also one of its weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong. I totally enjoyed THE TERMINAL, and consider it one of the best comedies this year. We must, however, realize and accept that it is a fantasy in order to sustain our disbelief. At times the direction does seem somewhat on the nose, shamelessly tugging on our heartstrings and preaching to the choir about compassion and truth. Spielberg’s detractors will no doubt complain about the schmaltzy overtone. The romance between Viktor and Amelia does feel forced as well.

What makes the film so enjoyable, making us laugh and smile at the right places, is the assortment of colorful characters. Hank’s Viktor is almost like a Forrest Gump with a thick accent, which he occasionally overdoes, rendering his dialogue incomprehensible sometimes. But Hanks has enough heart to carry the character anywhere he wants to. Zeta-Jones is delightful as the kind Amelia who hates to be alone. Tucci is wonderfully snarky and neurotic -- a guy you’d really love to hate. Viktor’s three unlikely friends are portrayed with humility and comedic deftness by McBride (NARC), Luna (DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHT) and Pallana (DUPLEX). Though we don’t really know their motivations, they simply put a smile on your face. And that’s all that matters.

John William’s score is light and fun, perfect for the tone of the film. Spielberg’s direction is masterful, as usual. The editing can use some work, and the ending is about 10 minutes too long. Otherwise, it is a film that the whole family can enjoy. Except, I suppose, when you are waiting for a flight at the terminal.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Zoe Saldana, Kumar Pallana
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson
Distributors: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, drug and alcohol


Script – 8
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total – 7.4 out of 10

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