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Blatant plot holes nearly 'Terminal'

By Hap Erstein, Palm Beach Post Film Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004

Summer movies are mainly about escapism.

But with The Terminal, master filmmaker Steven Spielberg seems determined to test our ability to escape the bounds of logic and credibility. He does so, or at least he tries, in a far-fetched fable about a man trapped at New York's Kennedy Airport by political circumstances, bureaucratic regulations and his own honesty.

To buy the plight of woebegone Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) of the fictitious Eastern European nation of Krakozhia, you will have to ignore gaping holes in the plot.

Hanks is very sympathetic as the foreign traveler who falls through the cracks in the system, but he cannot overcome the problematic screenplay by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can).

Speaking virtually no English and clutching a tin of Planters Peanuts with Cyrillic lettering, Viktor arrives at JFK, eager for his first glimpse of the United States. Alas, a sudden coup d'etat in his country has rendered his passport invalid, so he is stuck indefinitely amid the fast food and upscale shops of the international departure lounge.

That makes him the personal headache of airport operations supervisor Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), a stickler for regulations who simply wants Viktor gone. You would too if he were wandering the terminal in his bathrobe and Homeland Security officials were due to evaluate Frank for a long-sought promotion. Even when Frank engineers an illegal escape, ordering all guards to look the other way, Viktor cannot bring himself to leave.

Instead, he takes up residence in the terminal for months, aided by low-level employees -- a custodian, a baggage handler and a food-service porter. Eventually, Viktor is hired as a construction worker to renovate the airport. And because he is played by Hanks, Viktor gets a love interest, incurably romantic flight attendant Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Waiting for permission to leave, Viktor also acts as a go-between for the porter (Y Tu Mama Tambien's Diego Luna) and an immigration clerk (Zoe Saldana), who accepts his marriage proposal without ever meeting him. It's that kind of movie.

Viktor also intercedes in a customs dispute with a desperate man trying to import medicine that his father needs to survive. Viktor, who apparently spends his free time boning up on the regulations, prevails on his behalf and becomes a folk hero around the food court.

Other hokey things occur as The Terminal marks time until it reveals why Viktor wanted to come to New York in the first place. Suffice it to say it is a mission that, once trapped in airport limbo, he could have sent any of his new-found friends to accomplish.

This is a movie that holds up badly to scrutiny. One minute Frank is eager to be rid of Victor, the next he insists the Krakozhian not be allowed to leave the airport. One minute Viktor's hopes are dashed by an unsigned one-day emergency visa, the next minute the visa is irrelevant.

It is not enough to save the movie, but Hanks gives another winning performance, pouring on the charm with his broken English, going up against a system of roadblocks that are incomprehensible to him. Also first-rate is Tucci as the career airport executive, increasingly infuriated as this human thorn in his side keeps getting the best of him.

Spielberg's lack of care in script development is inexcusable, but he does do his usual meticulous job of capturing the story on film, including building his own recreation of Kennedy Airport. As in A.I., he is blatant with his product placements, from Borders Books to Burger King, and he tends to overuse back-lit flaring, but he knows how to move this largely static film at an engaging pace.

If only it moved so swiftly that the plot holes were not instantly apparent.

hap_erstein@pbpost.com


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