For those whom traveling is a major part of their lifestyle, they can tend to feel like they’re just living in an airport. Viktor Navorski knows how this feels. In the case of Viktor, though, it’s without the traveling. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re looking at 2004’s The Terminal: as one of Spielberg’s lesser works, it’s an attempt to re-capture the lighthearted spirit of his previous film, Catch Me if You Can, though here with diminished results. However, The Terminal does have its pleasures.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
After having a positive experience during the production of 2002’s Catch Me if You Can, Spielberg wanted to make another movie “that could make us laugh and cry and feel good about the world,” which he felt was necessary during the gloomy period following September 11 and the beginning of the Iraq War. He also obviously welcomed another opportunity to work with Tom Hanks, whom he was close friends with prior to their first professional collaboration on the 1998 war film Saving Private Ryan, and whom he had just worked with prior on Catch Me if You Can.
Though none of the film’s press materials or its DVD acknowledge this, The Terminal was loosely inspired by the story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in France’s Charles de Gaulle Airport from 1988 to 2006. His stay there was at first due to being denied entry to France and being unable to return home, though he was later granted residency and stayed by choice. His story was the basis for the 1994 French film Lost in Transit, and then 2004’s The Terminal, for which he was paid $250,000 by Spielberg.
In the film, Tom Hanks portrays Viktor Navorski, a traveler from the fictional nation of Krakozhia, which is intended to resemble an Eastern European country. Upon arrival at New York’s JFK International Airport, Navorski finds that his passport is no longer valid, and is intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He meets Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who informs him that the Krakozhia government has fallen due to civil war. The country is no longer recognized by the U.S., and because of this, Viktor can neither enter New York nor go home.
Viktor, knowing only a handful of English words and fortified only with a suitcase, is then left to fend for himself in the airport terminal, though always under surveillance by Dixon and his staff. After a while, Viktor is given a chance to enter New York while Dixon looks the other way, but he refuses to break the law. Instead, he adapts to life in the terminal over time, finding food, learning English, making new friends with the employees (and enemies, such as in Dixon), getting a job, and even falling in love with a pretty flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
In comparison to Spielberg’s vast array of classics and masterpieces, The Terminal compares as a very low-stakes film of more humble ambition, and because of this it is largely ignored today in discussions of the director’s broader work. It’s also a rather underwhelming movie considering the talent involved, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film. On the contrary, The Terminal is one of a handful of works to make good use of Spielberg’s sentimental leanings, and it’s also a crowd-pleasing testament to the human spirit, although it’s certainly not without its share of problems.
Navorski can be described as your classical bumbling, well-meaning fish-out-of-water as he stumbles his way through survival in a foreign airport terminal over the course of several months. He’s depicted as clumsy and naiive, as he’s always running into things and very trusting of others, and this can become frustrating as he appears almost like he’s trying to stay stuck in the airport forever as he either willingly or accidentally foregoes various opportunities to leave, although he’s clearly very resourceful, as he devises plenty of tricks and ways to alleviate his stay.
Hanks is as lovable as ever, mulling plenty of endearing sympathy and comic relief for Viktor in his clumsy movements and lack of English. Some have criticized the realism of his Bulgarian-derived accent, though I’m not someone who would know, so I’ll leave that one for you to decide. According to linguist Martha Young-Scholten though, the film presents a reasonably accurate representation of an English language transition. But otherwise, Hanks is as pleasurable as he always is. It’s not one of his more iconic roles, but Tom makes for a sweet and earnest Viktor.
The film also offers a host of charming side characters in the form of the various airport staff. The late Kumar Pallana, a regular of Wes Anderson films, plays the feisty and paranoid elderly janitor Gupta. Diego Luna plays baggage-handler Enrique, who is in love with a check-ins officer named Torres. Enrique’s love here is played by an early Zoe Saldana, and it’s interesting that her character here is described as a Trekkie, as Saldana would go on to play Uhura in the Star Trek reboots. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a flight attendant and Viktor’s love interest in the film.
Her name is Amelia Warren, and she makes friends with Viktor as she bemoans her troubled affair with a married man as she lives a travel-heavy lifestyle. They eventually bond over history as Viktor’s friends contrive to get them together. It’s a cute concept, but it’s quite unbelievable for a guy living out of an airport to woo such a girl, so it’s quite fitting when she eventually goes back to her lover in the end, as Spielberg resists the temptation for such romantic-comedy tripe in this regard. Other than this however, the film does have plenty of head-scratching plot points.
The main one of course, is how it could be believable that Viktor would stay willingly so long in the airport when he has so many opportunities to leave. It’s also strange how Frank Dixon, vying for the job of Field Commissioner, becomes his enemy in ways that really make no sense from Dixon’s point of view. Interestingly though, Navorski’s situation can be viewed as the result of both characters’ unreasonable dedication to “the rules,” as in one scene Dixon’s predecessor takes him aside to tell him that sometimes you need to “ignore the rules” in preference for humanity.
Minority Report could easily be read as a commentary on a post-9/11 world, but it was actually filmed prior to the September 11 attacks, so The Terminal is significant as Spielberg’s first acknowledgement of the times, as Navorski’s predicament represents the plight of immigrants during the 2000s period of travel disruption. This idea really gives the film some depth, but overall The Terminal is really just a charming comedy about a man stuck in an airport. It can feel like a lengthy layover in spots, but in the end The Terminal will get you to your destination.
In our next review, we’ll be returning to the type of content Spielberg built his career on in the sci-fi/action adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds. The film is on DVD and Blu-Ray; it’s also available for rental through digital retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.