Vol 17 - Issue 24 - June 16-22, 2004 


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Matt Zoller Seitz
Russ Smith
Matt Taibbi
Paul Krassner
Jim Knipfel
Kate Crane
J.R. Taylor
Joshua Cohen
Joshua M. Bernstein
Judy McGuire

Happy endings and all—the art of appreciating the art of Steven Spielberg.

By Matt Zoller Seitz


IN THE INTERNATIONAL terminal of JFK Airport, a woman asks a man she's sweet on, "Are you coming or going?"

"I don't know," he replies. "Both."

That exchange doesn't just underscore the story of Steven Spielberg's marvelous new film The Terminal, about an Eastern European man forced by circumstance to spend several months living in an airport. It ricochets in the imagination, prompting us to flash back through some of the striking images we've seen up to that point, revisit Spielberg's canon in search of related ideas and images and realize there are so many that counting them is impossible.

At that point, we realize—or should realize, yet again—that Spielberg is not merely one of the greatest American entertainers, but the kind of committed popular artist the auteur theory was invented to describe. In an age when too many blockbusters seem to have been willed into existence by fusing Madison Ave. clip reels with the front page of Variety, Spielberg's work is deeply personal, varied yet consistent.

The man in the above exchange is Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), an Eastern European whose country falls into chaos right after he lands at JFK for a visit, falls through an immigration loophole and has to live at the airport for months, waiting for the day when he can either visit the Big Apple or go home to his shattered land. The woman is Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a flight attendant who's been in an intense, often rotten relationship with a married man for years; at first glance, she seems to possess a freedom of movement Viktor lacks. The would-be lovers are surrounded by supporting characters distinctive enough to anchor their own movies, including Chi McBride as an outwardly cynical baggage handler, Diego Luna as a hopelessly romantic colleague, Zoe Saldana as the lovely INS agent he fancies and Kumar Pallana as a janitor who likes to kick back and watch inattentive travelers' pratfalls on his freshly mopped floors.

This airport is a microcosm of America, but it is also an island that stands for everyplace and no place. Viktor must learn the terminal's rhythms and idiosyncrasies in order to live there without losing his mind, and while he never quite thrives, he does adapt. He forges alliances with airport employees (many of them immigrants) and learns English by studying translation books and the tv news ticker. He even discovers ingenious ways of making a living, including rounding up baggage carts for a quarter a pop. He's a decent man—a hard worker but not a hustler.

Throughout The Terminal, he is repeatedly given the chance to cut ethical corners—to "escape" to New York while terminal police and surveillance cameras look the other way—and he nearly always refuses. In this fundamental sense, Viktor is a classic embodiment of that Spielbergian type, the proletariat idealist—a good citizen who is temporarily deprived of a home yet never entirely gives up hope of regaining it, or building another. Viktor refuses to condone a confused, destructive system by breaking its rules; he would rather stand his ground and force the people who administer the system to do the right thing and amend it.

The sheer wealth of creativity and humanity gathered onscreen makes most other contemporary films seem lame. The central situation is concrete, nearly humdrum, yet Spielberg's precision elevates it to the level of modern myth. It's like Capra doing Kafka, if you can imagine such a thing. Spielberg's tone is generally airy, but rarely wistful and never trivial. He and his actors are aware of the banal tragedy of Viktor's circumstances. This polite, rumpled man, whose worldly possessions consist of the clothes on his back, two bags and a mysterious Planters Peanuts can with Cyrillic writing on the side, could be a dramatic cousin of Hanks' character in Cast Away. (In superficial ways, The Terminal suggests Cast Away without the weight loss.)

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Volume 17, Issue 24

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