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Spielberg’s airport dramedy is just plane fun

By Jeff Stanford | Orlando CityBeat Writer
Posted June 17, 2004

"The Terminal"
"The Terminal" (DreamWorks Pictures)

Tom Hanks endures the mother of all airport delays in The Terminal, a new dramatic comedy from the legendary Steven Spielberg. Both director and star are Hollywood powerhouses, but they've jettisoned their blockbuster baggage to give us this unpretentious and bittersweet story about one man's odyssey of friendship, love and personal discovery while stuck in an airport.

Viktor (Hanks) is en route to New York City from his tiny Eastern European country when his homeland's government is overthrown. Landing at JFK airport, he finds himself with an invalid passport until the political unrest is resolved. Dixon (Stanley Tucci), JFK's local representative for the Department of Homeland Security, confines Viktor to the airport's promenade until all the red tape can be unraveled.

Most of us have endured the mind-numbing purgatory of a flight delay. Time slows down as the minutes crawl closer to boarding time. Spielberg and screenwriters Andrew Niccol, Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson do a great job of intensifying that feeling. Waiting becomes Viktor's entire life as he anticipates a flight that might never arrive. Niccol, who also wrote The Truman Show and loosely based this story on real events, continues to play with the idea of a naïve man trapped in a human fishbowl.

Since he does not speak English, Viktor must learn the details of his country's war purely from the images he sees on the airport's TV monitors. He can't read the news scroll or understand the anchor's reports so the events seem even more horrific. At the height of his fear and confusion, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal Viktor lost amid a sea of people in the vast concourse. No one in a crowd has ever looked more alone.

Hank's performance is a wonderful bookend to his Oscar-nominated turn in Cast Away. Both men were stranded, but Victor's island just happens to be a modern utopia filled with conveniences like Burger King and Starbucks. Like in that earlier film, Hanks' character must learn how to survive on his own.

Viktor's ingenuity generates many of the film's laughs. He learns how to earn money by returning luggage carts to the automatic dispenser. He lives off free crackers and condiments from the food court and finds shelter in an empty departure gate slated for renovation. He learns English by comparing the text in his travel book to the same one in English.

As his wait expands from hours to days to months, Viktor befriends the airport's employees. They provide him with a unique glimpse of life behind-the-scenes and care for him as one of their own. His main cronies include the janitor that mops the floor just so he can watch people slip and fall, the baggage handler who plays poker with the unclaimed items from "lost and found," and the food service guy with the crush on the cute immigration official.

Viktor also fights a constant comic battle of wills with Dixon and sparks a romance with Amelia (the lovely Catherine Zeta Jones), a career flight attendant. Jones presents a wistful portrait of a woman who has almost given up on romance altogether due to the demands of her nomadic lifestyle. Hanks and Jones have an endearing chemistry. Their on-screen relationship is sweet, refreshingly mature and unpredictable.

The romantic subplot concludes with a poignant twist, which is unusual for a film of this type. You expect all hearts and flowers and while The Terminal does end on an upbeat note, not everyone walks into the sunset happily ever after. Regardless, it is still a satisfying conclusion to an entertaining film. Those who might quibble over the end should recall what Viktor learns from this experience. The journey is often far more important than the destination.

Copyright © 2004,

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