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Last modified Wednesday, June 16, 2004 12:28 PM PDT

American dream takes flight in poignant 'Terminal'

    "The Terminal" A-
    Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Diego Luna
    Director: Steven Spielberg
    Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
    Rated: PG-13 (for brief language and drug references)
    RT: 128 min.

      The difference between living in an airport terminal as opposed to a public library is that in the latter you get more Mark Twain, in the former, more John Grisham.

      That has nothing to do with "The Terminal," really, it's just a fact, though the lead character in "The Terminal" has elements of a Twain character ----- he's a fish out of water ---- and elements of a Grisham character, in that he doesn't understand why somebody or something is out to get him.

      The new Steven Spielberg film is a deceptively simple story of a man lost between two countries, stuck for several weeks in a place most of us don't want to be stuck for more than an hour, an airport terminal.

      Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man traveling from his fictional Eastern European country to New York City, for a reason we don't yet know. Problem is, upon arrival at JFK Airport, Viktor is told he is a man without a country. His own country has been violently overthrown, the U.S. does not yet recognize the new leaders, and Viktor can neither return home nor set foot on U.S. soil until matters are straightened out.

      Viktor is told by airport security chief Frank Dixon, played by Stanley Tucci, that he must remain in the terminal until further notice. He is given food coupons and wished good luck. Dixon is constantly looking for a way to move Viktor elsewhere, let him become some other bureaucrat's responsibility, but nobody will take him.

      Viktor, meanwhile, sets up his life in the terminal, living off Burger King, sleeping in waiting chairs.

      Through it all, he remains optimistic, even begins an unlikely romance with a beautiful, troubled flight attendant, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who doesn't quite get Viktor, as his English is limited. She does realize in him, though, a simple, honorable honesty.

      On it goes, as the officious, insecure Dixon seeks to oust Viktor or have him arrested, and the patient immigrant adheres to the rules and waits anxiously for his opportunity to at last visit America.

      "The Terminal" is a poignant comedy, graceful in both its physical humor and its subtle comments on bureaucracy, especially in a security-minded world that has changed dramatically in the past few years.

      The film doesn't spend an abundant amount of time commenting on this security-mania, though. Instead, the film is more the story of one man's strange trip, that which he can't quite complete. Setting him inside the benign, climate-controlled confines of an airline terminal makes the atmosphere safe, but so safe that claustrophobia runs rampant.

      Hanks is made for these things, using gentle comic skills and easy likability. This is the perfect everyman role for the actor, even if his character comes from a place that is officially nowhere.

      Some may squirm a little at the patented Spielberg heartstring-tugging, which slips in a little, especially near the end. Give "The Terminal" some room for that, though, and the story soars, even as its lead character stays grounded.

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