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Film review

Staying power

Steven Spielberg's The Terminal, based on a true story of a man living in an airport, has that feel-good movie vibe, but it also has depth and a sense of importance.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Staff Writer
Published June 17, 2004

[DreamWorks Pictures]
Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) sees a news report at John F. Kennedy International Airport and realizes for the first time that a war has erupted in his homeland.

The massive set re-creates sections of JFK. It was built from the ground up in a hangar.
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Airports are such romantic places; all those lovers arriving and departing, those well-dressed travelers who can be fantasized into something charming, dangerous or sexy. Chance meetings that spark and assignations with no chance to succeed. Would Casablanca be as memorable if it ended in a shipyard?

An airport even makes a romantic of Steven Spielberg, who, for all his blockbusters, has never directed a movie to make viewers swoon. Until now.

His only attempt, 1989's Always, is arguably his only flop, since even 1941 and Empire of the Sun enjoy a certain posterity now. Spielberg regularly makes us cheer, cringe and perhaps cry for the children, but he hasn't before made a movie as irresistibly romantic as The Terminal.

But not in the way moviegoers may expect. We see the casting of Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones and automatically think we know the fadeout. Preview trailers announce that Hanks' character, Viktor Navorski, will play matchmaker, and we're certain we know how he'll do it. We see a stern foil (Stanley Tucci) for Viktor's predicament and immediately fit him for a black hat when something in gray is more appropriate. We see colorful sidekicks and don't realize how deeply they will figure into the warm rushes and maybe tears that The Terminal will bring.

Spielberg, servicing a consistently wise screenplay by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, has created a movie so enveloping that even the sappiest scenes have the strength of their characters' convictions. As in all romantic films, there are acts of devotion that nobody would have the gumption or ability to perform in real life. But the insular environment that Viktor experiences makes anything believable. It's a model of modern life containing the limitlessness of science fiction. Things that would be hooted off the screen in other movies are somehow possible. If a feel-good popcorn flick can be emotionally challenging, this is it.

Viktor's plight is briskly laid out: While he is en route to New York for a deeply personal reason, Viktor's fictional homeland is overtaken by rebels. The United States doesn't recognize the new government, so Viktor's visa is canceled in midair. When he lands he can't leave John F. Kennedy airport under orders of security chief Frank Dixon (Tucci), whose career doesn't need the problems his decision causes. Viktor can't speak English so he doesn't understand, yet he complies with a grace perhaps born of previous oppression. Elements of optimistic screen losers like Chaplin and Keaton are obvious in Viktor.

Weeks pass and Viktor makes himself at home, ingeniously figuring out how to make money for food and inadvertently landing a job. A gate area under construction becomes his sleeping quarters. Frank wants him out but is bound by red tape. Viktor is so pure at heart that he won't escape even when security guards are ordered to turn their heads.

Like a too-frequent flier, Viktor runs into the same people until they become acquaintances and even friends. Immigration agent Dolores Torres (Zoe Saldana) sees him every day as he dutifully awaits clearance. Flight attendant Amelia Warren (Zeta-Jones) catches his eye until he sees her embracing a lover (Michael Nouri). Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna) and Joe Mulroy (Chi McBride) are baggage transporters looking for a poker partner. Gupta Rajan (scene thief Kumar Pallana) is a janitor who initially thinks Viktor works for the CIA. And Frank watches over all through security cameras like the director-god of The Truman Show. That film's screenwriter, Andrew Niccol, helped devise this plot, inspired by a true story (see accompanying article).

The emotions of The Terminal are given more credibility by Alex McDowell's marvelous production design - impeccably re-creating sections of JFK airport - and Janusz Kaminski's fluid camera work. The Terminal looks and feels like the real thing with its orchestration of extras and travelers' vision. In Viktor, Hanks has a role that satisfies what audiences expect from him plus the acting stretch he has forced fans to accept lately. Viktor isn't as dark as Hanks' Road to Perdition killer or as wacky as his professor in The Ladykillers. Still, he gets to add a bit of both, and a credible accent and a somber secret, to the kind of eager, clumsy romantic that moviegoers loved in Splash and Sleepless in Seattle. Viktor's innocence is almost Gumpian. Through the eyes of an immigrant, Hanks conveys a sense of U.S. patriotism as the resolution unfolds.

The Terminal is his movie as much as Cast Away was. One false move and the entire facade would crumble. Hanks doesn't allow that to happen, and every other performance, especially Tucci's well-modulated jerk, is better for it.

Spielberg's film isn't the best of 2004 so far, but it's the most traditional Academy Awards contender we've seen. The Terminal has the creative pedigree, the favored sons and daughters of Oscar voters, and a buoyant sense of "importance" that doesn't interfere with its primary goal of entertaining the masses. They loved Spielberg when he put down the toys and got serious with Schindler's List, and they'll love him for finding another way to wear our hearts on his sleeve.

The Terminal

Grade: A

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Diego Luna, Chi McBride, Barry Shabaka Henley, Kumar Pallana, Zoe Saldana

Screenplay: Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson

Rating: PG-13; profanity, drug references

Running time: 124 min.

[Last modified June 16, 2004, 12:13:24]

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