Despite the glum connotations of its title, “The Terminal” is a joyous movie. It confirms Steven Spielberg as a personal filmmaker and Tom Hanks as an inventive comic actor.
From Spielberg's perspective, “The Terminal” points to a happy irony. In 1975, the director's splashy “Jaws” became the harbinger of effects-filled summer blockbuster fodder. And now, 29 years later, in the most effects-laden summer on record, Spielberg directs one of the season's most human stories.
The film's bless-the-underdog, cheer-the-working-class tone provides an abundance of outlets for the rampant sentimentality of earlier heartfelt efforts. But Spielberg has learned how to monitor his soggier instincts. “The Terminal” is a seamless blend of whimsy and wit.
The role of Viktor Navorski echoes several Hanks characters. Like Forrest Gump, he's an eternal optimist with a communication barrier, this time caused by linguistics. Like Chuck Noland, he's “cast away” — this time on one of the world's most heavily populated islands.
Like “Cast Away” and “Big,” “The Terminal” requires an inventory of physical acting skills. And like Spielberg, Hanks has learned when to issue a restraining order on his own antics. At times Viktor threatens to become too crinkly-cute, but Hanks brings him back to reality with a touch of human crustiness.
Viktor arrives at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport from his fictitious Eastern European homeland of Krakozhia. Shortly after deplaning, he learns that Krakozhia has been subjected to a political coup and no longer exists. His passport is invalid, and he is a man without a country. He must live within the confines of the terminal until further notice.
He knows very little English, and his first misadventures are done largely in pantomime, reiterating Hanks' prowess as a physical comic actor. He also grunts, gasps and shudders with remarkable range and variety.
Following “The Ladykillers”' bogus professor, “Catch Me If You Can's” stoic FBI sad sack and “Road to Perdition's” kind-hearted assassin, “The Terminal” offers audiences a return to the Tom Hanks they've most often cherished. You know that Viktor will make friends of almost all the airport working stiffs, but Hanks, Spielberg and the outstanding supporting cast make the experience fresh and spontaneous.
Viktor even enjoys a little romance with glamorous, sad-eyed flight attendant Amelia, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. This is the film's most dangerous section. Amelia is already involved with a married man and seems a throwback to the hard-luck women played by Shirley MacLaine. But the Viktor/Amelia segments are written and directed with restraint and played with charm by Hanks and Zeta-Jones. In some ways, Amelia is the antithesis of the actress' Oscar-winning Velma in “Chicago,” and Zeta-Jones makes Amelia equally convincing.
As an officious airport executive, Stanley Tucci takes what could have been a thankless role and turns it into a recognizably human character. Kumar Pallana is irresistibly funny as a janitor, and his contribution to Viktor's dinner date with Amelia is a show-stopper.
As with most Spielberg films, the physical touches become important characters. The airport was constructed entirely from scratch in a Palmdale, Calif., aerospace-alley hangar. Even in the post-9/11 world, it seems a welcoming beacon, and its construction is a massive achievement.
In the parade of summer flicks, so many entries are not worth more than a passing nod. “The Terminal” is one you'll think about — and even want to see again.
Η Η Η ½
Rated: PG-13 for language, sexual innuendo
Running time: 2:08