Published June 15, 2004
'Terminal': America in a nutshell
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' new airport movie is all about nuts, and not just because flight attendants are known to pass out nuts, some moviegoers like to snack on nuts and approximately half of Hollywood is nuts.
Opening Friday, "The Terminal" features Hanks as Viktor, an Eastern European whose country goes belly-up while he's at a New York airport. Stuck with an invalid visa, he's stranded in the airport indefinitely, clutching a battered Planter's nuts can he won't let out of his sight. Everybody in the movie asks Viktor about his can of peanuts, which is strange, since it appears to be a can of cashews, not peanuts.
"Well, I think all nuts, as far as I know, are called peanuts," says Spielberg, by phone from Los Angeles. "Planter's Peanuts are very famous. They're all over the world, and I remember there used to be a huge Planter's peanut statue in Philadelphia, with arms that moved up and down to attract your attention."
A. That's bogus (technically, peanuts aren't even nuts). And, B. It doesn't really answer the whole nut question, does it?
"The truth is you've actually got to the bottom of one of the key things in the movie," says Hanks, from the same hotel suite as Spielberg. "If you pay attention to the movie, you'll notice that Viktor never says it's a can of peanuts. He just says it's jazz."
Eventually, "The Terminal" reveals what Viktor means by that. So, without giving too much away about the warmly old-fashioned comedy-drama, the word from Hanks and Spielberg is: Pay attention to the nuts.
Nuts aren't the only important detail in "The Terminal," which was shot at a gigantic airport terminal set so crammed with visual information that, Spielberg says, "my goal was to shoot every inch of it, so I never felt like I had wasted a single bit of it. I made it my life's work to find suitable places to shoot each scene and show every bit of what (production designer) Alex McDowell created."
Spielberg even finds beauty in places as unlikely as a saltine cracker. For a time, Viktor, penniless and snackless, is forced to subsist on condiments, and when his ketchup squirts through the holes in his saltine sandwiches, it has the graphic, elemental look of a pop art painting. That's no accident, according to Hanks, who confides there were people on set whose job it was to make sure the saltine holes were large enough to make the effect work.
"The movie has a lot to do with Viktor's tenacity in creating something out of nothing," says Spielberg. "Turning saltines into a Dagwood sandwich is the microscopic example. And a larger one is him creating friendships from nothing, from being a lonely, isolated person who creates this international community from all these people in the airport, all these people who are stuck in one place while the rest of the world moves in and out of it."
Viktor bonds with a number of airport employees, as well as frequent flier Catherine Zeta-Jones, and it's gradually revealed that the airport is a sort of jumping-off place from which the characters figure out the next stages of their lives.
"I always think of international terminals as a kind of Ellis Island in microcosm," says Spielberg. "There are new immigrants passing through all the time, and it forces you to embrace or, at least, acknowledge people from other cultures and countries. It's the only place where the melting-pot theory still works, when you're stuck with each other, waiting in line."
Hanks says that's why the terminal had to be a vibrant, wondrous, noisy place: For most foreigners, an airport is the first view of vibrant, wondrous, noisy America. For Viktor, trapped in the terminal, it may be his only view of America.
"The most important scene is one that isn't in the movie, a scene we never shot," says Hanks. "When Viktor is back home afterwards, people would ask about the trip, and he would say: 'America is fantastic! You smell the food everywhere, the people are magnificent they play cards with you and give you presents. It's the most exciting place I've ever been!' Even though he never left the terminal. To me, if we could get to the point where that happened and you would believe it, we would have done something no one has ever done in quite this fashion."
The hoped-for effect is a stop-and-smell-the-Starbucks experience for Viktor, and for audiences, because great things can happen while you're waiting for whatever you're waiting for. That's the reason for the main "rule" of "The Terminal."
"It dawned on me almost immediately that we couldn't leave the airport," says Spielberg, who had to cut from the script an amusing sequence that would have stranded Viktor on a baggage carousel, making the rounds of the airport. "As funny as that would have been, the carousel would have taken him outside the airport, and it would have violated the rule that he could not go out, even for a good sight gag. We agreed that he could look outside, but he couldn't go outside."
As a result, in "The Terminal," America remains a place of hope and possibility. Says the director, "There's one scene where Viktor is looking out through the glass wall of the airport, and you see this kind of smile on his face where he's thinking, 'If only I could go out and be a part of this amazing place.'"
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