The Terminal

Robin Clifford
Robin Clifford 
The Terminal
Laura Clifford
Laura Clifford 
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-.

Laura's review will be available opening day, 6/18/2004.Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at New York City's international airport just as his country, Krakozhia, undergoes a coup.  Department of Homeland Security official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci, "Road to Perdition") informs the uncomprehending visitor that his passport and visa are invalid and sends Viktor off with his officer, Ray Thurman (Barry Shabaka Henley,"Ali"), who will explain to Navorski that until he regains a recognized homeland he must not leave "The Terminal."

Director Steven Spielberg attains another fine performance from Tom Hanks and, with production designer Alex McDowell ("Minority Report") perfectly creates the world of an airline terminal, but he cannot overcome the unbelievable subplots and supporting characters created by screenwriters Jeff Nathanson ("Catch Me If You Can") and Sacha Gervasi ("The Big Tease"). "The Terminal" is worthwhile for what it does well, but the film would have been better served by its director had he recognized and excised elements such as Catherine Zeta-Jones' klutzy, unlucky in love airline attendant Amelia.

After being unceremoniously dumped in the terminal with a handful of food vouchers, Viktor begins to realize his situation when he sees the situation in Krakozhia broadcast on the monitors which dot the gate lounges.  No one understands his pleas for interpretation nor will anyone help him figure out the English language phone card given to him by Frank.  When his vouchers drift to the floor, they are swept away by janitor Gupta (Kumar Pallana, "The Royal Tenenbaums"), Viktor's first encounter with one of the workers who will become his family over nine months.  Of course, this encounter is also hostile, Gupta sarcastically demanding that Viktor make an appointment in order to view his trash next Tuesday.  As Frank and Ray observe Viktor like a lab rat from Dixon's upper floor office, they're amazed by his acclimatization as he scurries about returning baggage carts for quarters.  Dixon, who simply wants rid of the headache and encourages Viktor to 'escape,' hires someone to collect the carts, but Viktor's chumminess with Visa officer Dolores Torres (Zoe Saldana, "Drumline") attracts catering worker Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights"), who makes Viktor his romantic liaison in exchange for food.  Viktor eventually procures an airport construction job and even assists Dixon as an interpreter in an episode which accentuates Frank's exaggeratedly villainous nature.  The film wraps with a battle of wills as Viktor's mysterious reason for visiting New York is revealed as a typically Spielbergian bit of sentimentality.

Hanks is wonderful registering a foreigner's wish to please, dismay at being caught up in a situation he cannot comprehend and the sheer will to endure.  He has a great comic moment worthy of Chaplin as he 'dances' about a security camera controlled by Dixon and easily brings out his character's inherent decency and sense of fair play.  Tucci is fine as an officious straight liner, but the role required more subtlety than was written for it.  Zeta-Jones tries to portray an all-American over the hill flight attendant by smiling vacuously and she and the character just do not work.  Better are Viktor's trio of buddies.  Chi McBride ("Narc") is down to earth as sensible baggage handler Joe and Kumar Pallana is delightful as the suspicious janitor.  Diego Luna invests Enrique with just enough venality to make him interesting but not unlikable and Saldana slowly warms to Viktor believably, but the two actors' romance is another screenwriting misstep that could easily have been reworked.

The three story glass terminal is beautifully achieved (the entire set was built within an airline hangar) and gorgeously lit by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("Catch Me If You Can"). Various shops (La Perla, Brookstone, Borders Books), eateries (Burger King, Nathan's Famous, Starbucks), gates, phone kiosks, rest rooms and employee only areas provide mini-sets which negate any sense of claustrophobia or boredom with the single location.

"The Terminal" makes its audience suffer one too many layovers, but Hanks and Spielberg's technical crew keep it aloft.

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