Hanks makes getting stuck at the airport entertaining

The Terminal Rating: HHH Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson and Sacha Gervasi Director: Steven Spielberg Rated PG-13: Brief language and drug references


Steven Spielberg isn't the most commercially successful director in movie history by accident. The man usually has a vise-like grip on his material, a trait that allows him to bounce effortlessly between popcorn flicks like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park and more serious fare like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.

So it's a surprise to watch The Terminal, the director's latest film about an Eastern European man named Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) who gets stranded in JFK International Airport after his country's government is overthrown during his flight to America. The surprise is that Spielberg never quite seems clear about what kind of movie he's making.

At times, The Terminal plays like a romantic comedy. At others, it feels like an absurdist take on the sameness of American culture. At still others, it's a commentary on the stringencies and hypocrisies of bureacucracy, specifically the bureaucracy that controls U.S. customs and border patrol.

And while the movie is all of those things at one time or another, it's never actually any one of them for very long. So it's a good thing that Spielberg has Hanks on his side. Ultimately, the actor, by turning the film into a character study about a stubborn, good-hearted man who gets waylaid in the middle of a very personal quest, decides exactly what The Terminal is: It's a Tom Hanks movie, and a good one.

Hanks's Viktor is from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia. Judging by his thick accent, I'd say Krakozhia would be somewhere near Kazakhstan, since Viktor sounds a lot like Borat Sagdayiev, the hilarious Kazakhstani correspondent on HBO's Da Ali G Show. When Viktor lands in New York, he is summoned to the office of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), a customs officer with his eye on a juicy promotion.

Dixon's attempts to explain Viktor's predicament are hindered by insurmountable language barriers. As Dixon outlines the bloody coup that has turned the traveler into a man without a country, Viktor reads aloud prepared taxicab instructions from a sheet of paper. When the customs officer asks whether he knows anyone in America, his response is "Keep the change."

Viktor figures things out slowly, especially when Dixon and the customs agents dump him in the middle of the International Travel Lounge with instructions not to exit the airport. On a TV that blares out the daily headlines to weary travelers, he learns of his country's uncertain fate. Hanks lets the revelation wash over his body, wincing and shuddering with fear and sadness.

But Viktor is nothing if not resilient. Over the weeks and months that he's stuck in the terminal, he turns the place into his home. In an under-construction wing, he fashions a bed out of chairs. He makes friends with the support staff, including a janitor named Gupta (Kumar Pallana), a food service worker named Enrique (Diego Luna) and a luggage employee named Joe (Chi McBride). He finds time to spark up a romance with Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a flight attendant with man troubles. He even gets a job working construction.

Meanwhile, Dixon, who originally decided to hold Viktor at the airport, begins to suspect that the befuddled traveler's constant presence at the terminal will hinder his promotion. And so he tries, unsuccessfully, to pass him off to other governmental agencies. But Viktor won't leave until he's sure he has permission to do so, and soon Dixon is as stuck as he is.

There are rumors that the movie's ending was tinkered with as recently as the last few weeks, and watching it, it feels like that might be true. It's a hard story to wrap up, and there is a secret revealed in the closing scenes that seems like it should be more dramatic than it is.

Still, maybe it's Spielberg's touch, maybe it's Hanks' great performance, or maybe it's just blind luck, but somehow the unevenness of the enterprise works to its advantage.

It's a big, gooey slice of life, a fairy tale featuring the Forrest Gump of travelers cast away as a stranger in a strange land. An interesting film could have been made about many of its plot strands, about Viktor's trip to New York City, for instance, the true, poignant purpose of which is revealed only at its end.

But the movie gets stuck at the airport. And like Viktor, it makes the most of it.