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The Terminal   C+

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson
Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Kumar Pallana, Zoë Saldana.

Review by Rob Vaux

Steven Spielberg has been moving in some fairly bold directions of late. His feel-good years seemingly behind him, he's experimented in darker fare with impressive results: the unsettling noir of Minority Report, the lost innocence of A.I., even the otherwise cheerful Catch Me If You Can had a delicious streak of nastiness in it. While they were all tempered with Spielberg's trademark optimism, they constituted an intriguing second wind in his lengthy career, a maturity flourishing from the triumph of Saving Private Ryan. It's distressing, then, to see such a saccharine return to earth with The Terminal. In and of itself, it's a decent effort -- the assembled filmmakers are too good to let us down -- but the material needs a little more edginess, a little more gloom. Now that we know how far the director can go, why does he need to order a retreat?

As uplifting humanism, at least, you could do worse. The screenplay posits an engaging scenario, rendered in bright fuzzy tones by DP Janusz Kaminski and embodied by Tom Hanks' adroit protagonist, Viktor Navorski. During a plane trip to New York, a coup in his (fictitious) native country renders his passport and other documents obsolete. He's forced to remain in the International Terminal until the civil war is resolved (when the State Department can determine how to legally classify him). He can't go home, and he can't set foot on American soil. The terminal is the only place left, but it could be months or even years before the war ends.

The material cries out for existential humor: a Waiting for Godot dilemma filtered through post-9/11 angst. Encouraging glimpses appear here and there in the initial scenes. Despite his lack of English, Navorski soon comes to understand his predicament. If he leaves the terminal, he'll be arrested, which would suit airport official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) just fine. But if he wishes to stay, he needs to find a means of getting food, rest, and other necessities. Spielberg plays the first third or so with an admirable mixture of comedy and pathos, boosted by Hanks, whose character is fleshed out far beyond the Warsaw Pact Gump clone he could have been. The absurdities of his situation are eerily plausible, and occasionally descend into the heartbreaking, as when he runs from TV to TV, trying desperately to fathom news reports about his disintegrating homeland.

The Terminal gets into trouble, however, the longer it tries to sustain the situation. In typical Spielberg fashion, Navorski takes to the challenge with pluck and aplomb, shedding his isolation and carving out something resembling a life for himself. He discovers ways of earning money (some clever, some perfunctory), makes new acquaintances who bloom into friends (or in the case of Catherine Zeta-Jones's flight attendant, a possible love interest), and -- as the press kit puts it -- finds a miniature version of America within the confines of the terminal. The notion that a collection of transitory travelers and corporate shopping outlets could reasonably constitute our culture is unsettlingly potent, but The Terminal never picks up on the joke. It's too busy trying to lift our spirits to retain the essence of such tasty conceits.

More importantly, The Terminal fails to give any weight to the forces against which Navorski is struggling. Theoretically, the heavy of the piece is Dixon, who represents the vast bureaucracy and whims of fate that can confine someone to such a purgatory. But as Navorski grows accustomed to his condition and the terminal's denizens slowly rally around him, it's Tucci's fussy little official who finds himself more and more isolated. His sense of menace wanes (and with it, that of the greater cosmos he represents), making the film mushier and less focused by turns until finally sinking into bland fecklessness. Hanks is good enough to hold the proceedings together (and his ultimate purpose in New York lends some nuance to the finale), but The Terminal finally brings too much sympathy to his corner. We know Spielberg has the necessary edginess: he could have applied it here to great effect without sacrificing the positive message he presumes to convey. But without it, The Terminal is as pleasantly adrift as its hero, a modestly enjoyable sojourn that has no idea where it should be going. The man in the director's chair has taught us to expect better.

Review published 06.15.2004.

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