by Mel Valentin
Future film historians may point to "The Terminal" as the inevitable turning point in Steven Spielberg's career, the sad decline that accompanies middle age. Tom Hanks may be no stranger to that decline himself. "The Terminal" reunites Steven Spielberg with Tom Hanks, adds a maudlin,predictable story line, which results in superficial, and, ultimately banal entertainment. "The Terminal" shares some similarities with Spielberg's previous effort, "Catch Me If You Can," but lacks "Catch Me If You Can’s" narrative drive, energy, or its consistently lighter tone, "The Terminal." Spielberg and Hanks can and have made better films, and hopefully, "The Terminal" isn't an indication that only "safe," equally uninspired projects lie ahead for both of them, either individually or collectively.In The Terminal, a foreign traveler, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), finds himself trapped in a (mildly) Kafkaesque, bureaucratic nightmare: his country, the fictional, if clearly Eastern European, Krahkosia, has suffered a military coup. Since the United States hasn't diplomatically recognized the new leadership, Viktor's passport is declared invalid. He can neither return to his country nor leave the JFK/New York City airport terminal. Faced with a predictable antagonist, the Homeland Security officer, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), in charge of customs and immigration, Viktor quickly, and all too easily, adapts to life inside the terminal. The film implies that Viktor's background as the citizen of a backwards, strife-ridden, former Communist Eastern European country has prepared him for the bureaucratic red tape he's confronting inside the airport terminal. One of the better moments in the film features Viktor's daily return to the same office inside the terminal for a visa application. Each time, his application is denied, but his attitude never turns to frustration, anger, or even resignation. Another highlight is his comical attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of the English language while he applies for various jobs inside the terminal.
"The first sign of Spielberg and Hanks' decline? Let's hope not."
The terminal is meant to be a microcosm of the United States, with secondary characters representing various assimilated or not-yet-assimilated ethnic groups: a Latino food cart employee (Diego Luna), an African-American baggage handler (Chi McBride), and an Indian janitor (Kumar Pallana). The food cart employee and the janitor have the requisite backstories, the employee is secretly in love with an INS agent, the other has escaped the authorities in his native India. Oddly, the baggage handler has no backstory, perhaps because he's fully assimilated into the American way of life. The terminal also contains a food court area, which allows for some obvious comic bits, reaffirms the melting pot ideal implicit in the narrative, and that, alas, serves as ubiquitous, unrestrained and pernicious product placement. Americans, the narrative suggests, aren't defined by a common culture as much as by consumerism and the fetishization of brand names.
No mainstream Hollywood film is complete without adding the obligatory romantic subplot, here personified by Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a flight attendant. Catherine Zeta-Jones gives one of her better performances, displaying uncommon subtlety and emotional vulnerability. Her role in the narrative, however, is sporadic, only increasing in visibility and screen time in the last third of the film. This problem is only one of several with the script and its execution by Spielberg. Surprising for a Spielberg film, the various subplots aren't well integrated into the overall story arc. Rather than cross-cutting between the main plot line and the busy subplots, allowing themes, subtext, and plot turns to reinforce one another, Spielberg handles them sequentially, for example, resolving the food cart's employee's character arc in one twenty-minute sequence.
Dixon's undermotivated antagonism toward Viktor proves to be equally problematic. For most of the film, Dixon is content to allow Viktor to live inside the terminal, their conflict kept to a bare minimum. It's only when the screenwriters inject an unrelated event, Dixon's rough, arrogant handling of another Eastern European visitor that Dixon is transformed into the film's villain. He declares that Viktor will never leave the terminal under his watch. But given genre conventions and Spielberg's obvious desire to follow them unquestioningly, the audience fully knows that Viktor will overcome all obstacles, have his day in New York City and, of course, winning Amelia's devotion.
Audiences shouldn’t expect any plot-driven surprises from The Terminal, with one exception: Viktor's unspoken, hidden motivation for coming to New York City in the first place. The mystery behind Viktor's trip to New York City is symbolized by a recycled object he carries with him everywhere. Viktor's comments about the mystery object are kept suitably cryptic until the third act, when he reveals its contents to Amelia (in a sentimental, manipulative scene shot with overbright backlighting and gauzy filters).Nonetheless, even a film mired in predictability isn't without some pleasures. Most of the performances and the early comic turns by Hanks provide the film with much-needed energy. "The Terminal" can be best described as "Spielberg-lite" (a moniker once used for one of Spielberg's protégés, Robert Zemeckis). Overall, "The Terminal" was a moderately disappointing experience (the trailer alone was enough to clue me into the generic nature of the script and the storytelling style). Recommended for casual filmgoers, hardcore Spielberg fans, or to filmgoers with low or lowered expectations.
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originally posted: 05/28/05 13:46:20