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Flick Picks
The Terminal: Small Movie With Big Heart
Tim Hager, Up & Coming Weekly, June 23, 2004 June 23, 2004
It's inevitable when you've established a career as long and as distinguished as Tom Hanks' that your movies will start to look familiar.
Catch Me If You Can felt like Forrest Gump meets The Man With One Red Shoe; Road to Perdition was Saving Private Ryan merged with Joe Vs. the Volcano. His latest film, the Steven Spielberg-directed The Terminal, feels like Cast Away in an airport, with a touch of Sleepless in Seattle. There is a compliment coming, although you might not have guessed it with that long windup. The compliment is that even though the plot lines start to look similar, the one difference - and this is saying something for an actor who played virtually the same character for the first decade of his career - is Hanks himself.
Hollywood is notorious for churning out movie stars over actors. Hanks is that rare hybrid; enough charisma to be a bona fide matinee idol, with the talent to disappear in a character. Look at it this way, with all his talent, when you're watching a Tom Cruise film, you are always aware it is Cruise; but after a few minutes with Hanks, you forget the name and buy into the persona he has created.
The Terminal is based on the true story of an Iranian refugee who got caught in diplomatic limbo and, as a result, has been living in France's De Galle airport for over a decade. Hanks plays, Viktor Navorski, a visitor to New York from the fictional European country of Krakozia. The time of his landing coincides precisely with the point at which a war causes his nation of origin to no longer exist, meaning that his passport and paperwork are no longer valid. As a man without a home, he takes up residence in the terminal itself, befriending the staff of the airport, and falling in love with an airline flight attendant
There is a love interest. Catherine Zeta Jones' Amelia is a stewardess with an unhealthy relationship with a married man. Amelia and Viktor meet by accident, when Amelia slips and breaks her shoe. They meet again later, this time when Amelia is left crying after an argument with the married man. Viktor comforts her, and they create a friendship. The romance blossoms slowly, with every layover and touch down. Amelia doesn't seem to find it odd that Viktor never seems to leave the airport; of course, her relationships with men have been based on believing the story that causes the least stress and the most heartache.
I like that the romance never becomes the focus of the plot, but an element of it. There are several other elements that weave in and out of focus as Viktor tries to find his way through the doors into New York. In the end, The Terminal isn't about any one thing; it meanders and weaves through a plot that is more about discovery than it is a specific destination. It's also a movie with a romanticized view of America. It's a nice reminder, in a time when we are told daily how much some people don't love us, that there are still those like Viktor whose only dream in life is a bit of ours.
Like Cast Away, Viktor must learn to exist in a foreign and hostile environment. There are basics to survival that translate whether you are in the South Pacific or Manhattan: food, shelter, language, and companionship. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of watching Viktor adapt to his new surroundings. I found the similar plots clever and I liked the way the screenwriter played with what we know of Hanks and his past. I'm certain the similarities were purposeful; for instance, a copy of a hand proves to be a turning point for the character, just as the bloody volleyball did in Cast Away.
I also like the direction the Spielberg/Hanks collaborations are taking. Saving Private Ryan was a necessary beginning. But the two projects since - Catch Me If You Can and now The Terminal - have been fun nods to their individual beginnings. You get a sense that both artists genuinely enjoy the relief of having the spotlight divided. As a result, Hanks is free to shrink into character - complete with thick accent, paunchy gut and unfashionable Eastern European lounge wear. Spielberg is free too, to let his camera constantly move; swooping, zooming, panning - over airport terminals and up escalators, the director has fun, not burdened with the seriousness of Schindler's List.
I imagine this is exactly what is wrong with The Terminal. If you hold Spielberg and Hanks to a standard that says every work they produce must be an instant classic, then the film falls short. It's an excellent diversion; the type of movie that will always be welcome at 2 p.m. on a lazy Sunday afternoon - but it's not The Color Purple or Big.
We'll let film historians debate the importance of The Terminal in the canons of both artists' works. In a summer of big movies with no hearts, it's nice to find a small movie with a big one.

©Up & Coming Magazine 2004
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