2004Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci
teven Spielberg is the only truly great filmmaker I know of who cinephiles can be made to feel guilty for liking. "He's too sentimental," comes the common refrain. "All his endings are happy and sugary and gooey and fake." I recently read a criticism of Spielberg that hammered the director for making ET, of all films, end on an uplifting note. Clearly, the writer was unfamiliar with the DVD director's cut, in which ET, depressed after having missed his flight, becomes a strung-out, cross-dressing coffee shop poet who moves to Portland and turns tricks for heroin.
In all seriousness, I'm not sure I understand the criticism. If people want to argue that Spielberg simply doesn't execute his ideas very well, they are entitled to that opinion (although, with a few exceptions like the execrable Always, I'm not sure what they base this on). But the harshest condemnations tend to be reserved for the underlying vision itself, the kind of unvarnished optimism and good feeling Spielberg portrays and clearly attempts to inspire in his audience. It's certainly true that there is an element of unreality in this vision (one that Spielberg would surely cop to), and deep emotional and moral complexity tends to be resolved or even dismissed entirely when Spielberg's characters realize that all they have to do is follow their hearts. But in what must sound like a strange compliment for a hugely successful director often accused of pandering to his audience, I've always admired Spielberg for, in a sense, working without a net. Is it easier for a director to unleash the full force of his giddy optimism on increasingly skeptical audiences, or to hide his films behind ironic asides and postmodern winks (David Lynch, I'm looking in your direction)?
Ikea unveils its new bed frame, the Florganmutter Djagolskold, to mixed success.
All this is prelude to saying that The Terminal, Spielberg's latest triumph-of-the-human-spirit offering, is not some major departure from the man's previous oeuvre. Indeed, if ever there was a return to thematic form, >i>The Terminal is it. Spielberg is clearly bent on suffusing you with his golden glow of warmth and love until you walk out of the theater smiling, whether you like it or not. And that's fine with me, especially since he comes oh-so-close to succeeding before a confused and distracted ending somewhat torpedoes the film. For an hour and a half, The Terminal is one of the more light-hearted, uplifting movies you will ever hope to see. The fact that the last half hour bogs down in narrative murkiness does not stop the film from being one of the few must-see summer offerings.
The plot is High Concept to a tee. Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a citizen of the fictional nation of Krakhozia, steps into New York's JFK Airport and finds himself in a Kafkaesque nightmare. While he was in the air, a military coup overthrew his country's government, and until the U.S. recognizes the new Krakhozian regime he cannot return home. Of course, this means his passport is also invalidated, so he can't officially enter the United States either. He is, as briskly efficient Homeland Security official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) tells him, literally "unacceptable." Viktor's only choice is to hang out in the airport's International Travelers' Lounge until his status changes. This, of course, leaves Viktor living in the airport for months, hoping against hope that somehow the political situation will change and he can step through the sliding doors into New York City.
But political intrigue is not what Spielberg is after here. The vast bulk of The Terminal is simply about what happens to Viktor while he waits. Until the very end, the entire film takes place on one set and revolves entirely around one character. Thus, The Terminal's success or failure rests on Tom Hanks' shoulders, and he comes through with a truly astonishing performance. Based on the previews, I had worried we were about to experience a two hour imitation of Balki from Perfect Strangers, but Hanks disappears so completely into his character that for the first time in years I forgot I was watching Tom Hanks at work. The Eastern European accent is impressive enough, but more central to the performance is Viktor's confused but gradual and determined acclimation to his bizarre new life. At the beginning of the film, Viktor speaks maybe ten words of conversational English, but Hanks is able to instantly make the audience empathize with him through use of facial expressions and subtle bodily gestures. It's a remarkable piece of acting that will probably go relatively underappreciated due to the feel-good nature of the film in which it occurs.
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In essence, The Terminal is a film about the ability to make the best of a potentially horrendous situation. In true Spielbergian fashion, Viktor gains the friendship and esteem of nearly the entire airport work staff due to a few small acts of human kindness and an altogether effervescent personality. The staff, of course, is populated by the kind of goodhearted eccentrics one normally finds among the animal populations of Disney films, and lest we forget about love, Viktor gets the hots for an unlucky-with-men flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones (in truth, a relatively underwritten part). Between Hanks, the supporting cast, and note-perfect direction, the overall effect of The Terminal is to conjure up those good feelings Spielberg is determined to wrangle free, and lots of them.
Until that ending. It's not a complete disaster, but compared to what comes before it ranks as a significant letdown. The screenwriters clearly ran out of ideas as they approached the end of the story, because the denouement has a random, slapped-on feel that bears little apparent relation to the rest of the movie. Without spoiling it, I'm disappointed that the filmmakers felt they had to give Viktor a Major Quest to go on. Isn't getting out of that damned terminal enough? I suspect The Terminal would have been more focused had Viktor been just another schmo in New York for a brief vacation who instead finds himself living in an airport. But alas, the screenwriters made sure Viktor's purpose in New York was far less prosaic and far more "meaningful," even though the meaning is entirely incidental to the whole point of the movie-- getting Viktor out of the airport itself. Thus, the last thirty minutes of the film have a jarring, unreal quality that contrasts markedly to the tone of the rest of the movie.
Those qualms aside, The Terminal is one of the more uplifting filmgoing experiences I've had in some time. Of course, with Steven Spielberg, what else does one expect?
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-06-25