By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Alfred Hitchcock's Rope might be the first of the films in which definite characters occupy a finite amount of space for the duration of an entire film. And Hitch understood how to make it work; his device of making the film look like a single shot notwithstanding, the film succeeds because of the details. We in the audience know where everything is, who knows about it and who needs to stay away from it.
In the new film The Terminal, Steven Spielberg and his team of writers skip over such details in favor of the broad gestures. When a man named Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK from a fictitious Eastern European country Krakozhia, he learns that his homeland has suffered a military coup and that the US no longer recognizes any official documents from there. Hence, he can't enter the United States and he can't return home.
He befriends some of the lower-level airport staff, played by international arthouse stars Kumar Pallana (The Royal Tenenbaums), Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también) and Chi McBride (Narc). But he makes an enemy in Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the Homeland Security official in charge of Viktor's case. A beautiful, befuddled flight attendant, Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) becomes Viktor's love interest.
This clever scenario raises a myriad of questions. How does one live in an airport for almost a year? How does one earn money, bathe or wash clothes? How long could one go without these things? How does one eat Burger King food for a year without keeling over? What does one do to pass the time? The film answers some of these questions whenever convenient, but leaves most others frustratingly unanswered.
Spielberg wants us to think that the character is inherently ingenious, but most of Viktor's survival comes from good fortune and coincidence. It's true that most airports are under construction at any given time, but could Viktor really have set up a little homestead in some dusty wing without being noticed? And how did he get a Swiss army knife into his luggage?
In addition, whenever Viktor does solve a problem, we're to assume that the same solution will keep working over and over again for the duration of the film.
The Terminal was co-written by Andrew Niccol, and it's similar in some ways to his 1998 The Truman Show. In that film, the character occupies a finite universe, but isn't entirely aware of his situation. Hence, we get to know him, but we also know about him through the other characters that react to him. There's friction between the real man and his celebrity status.
The Terminal wants Viktor to become a similar legend, but it doesn't work because no one treats him with awe. He's more like a pest to be dealt with or ignored. When Viktor finally stands up to Frank in a scene involving a Russian passenger and some drugs, the airport denizens suddenly come to respect Viktor, but it feels more like fair-weather respect than the genuine article.
In addition, we never learn much about Viktor, other than the fact that he's nice and can build things with his hands. He's also come to New York to perform some kind of sacred errand, centered around a mysterious peanut can. (I won't give it away, but since this is Spielberg, we can assume it has something to do with Viktor's father.)
In other movies about characters stuck in finite space, like last year's excellent Phone Booth, we learn everything there is to know about them. Their every dirty secret and private nuance comes into play. The harsher the truth, the more we can relate to the character. But Spielberg is so busy trying to elevate Viktor as a legend that he forgets about these simple things.
Strangely, while these two opposing elements hammer at each other with no victory in sight, Spielberg still manages to get a few spectacular moments in, like one in which Viktor recruits the cleaning crew to help him "coincidentally" meet Amelia at the arrival gate, or another in which Viktor figures out how to earn a few quarters by rounding up stray luggage carts.
Hanks helps a great deal with the considerable charm he automatically brings to the part. He has a lot of fun with yet another trick accent (following Catch Me If You Can and The Ladykillers), but an accent does not a great performance make, especially if the writing isn't there. One suspects that Niccol's screenplay was bowdlerized by a committee of writers (including Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson) and puffed up beyond the point of its most basic charms.
Visually, the film is a bit of a disappointment. I expected a kind of gleaming, unreal universe in which Viktor's story would unfold -- a bit like the futuristic shopping mall sequence in the great Minority Report -- and while Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski show an occasional moment of brilliance in a reflection or a play of light, for the most part the film looks flat, not aided by the incessant product placement.
In other words, the film has exceeded its weight limits and never quite gets airborne. This is a great filmmaker doing minor work.
This review also appeared in the The San Francisco Examiner.
DVD Details: The Terminal is availble in a movie only edition, or a special three-disc edition with a full disc of extras and a soundtrack CD.