Now that we're through with Steven Spielberg's epic period, it seems clear that history will record this next phase as his Capra period. Like Capra, Spielberg's The Terminal documents a small-town stranger beset by universal predicaments.
The Terminal begins and ends as a modern fable, entirely improbable and at times incomprehensible, but ripe with concealed insights into the charm and brutality of our society. Victor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has just landed at JFK airport, only to learn that a coup has just occurred in his home country, suspending his passport indefinitely. He has no home, friends, money, or language -- just a can of peanuts and a coupon for the airport's Payless Shoes.
If one is initially dubious of the dramatic appeal of what is essentially a two-hour joke ("I live in an airport! How wacky!"), rest assured: it's a damn good joke. Janusz Kaminski's camera is constantly basked in the neon halo of fluorescent lights that never turn off, the sterile blank white walls of airport bathrooms, and the perennial rabble of lobby TVs. Long aerial shots detail the throngs of visitors as they are roped into various lines, spit out through checkpoints, and deposited in the epileptogenic havoc of the airport's stores.
Navorski is never particularly cynical about his situation, befriending a politically correct crowd of employees and teaching himself English. Although the movie inevitably includes some light, xenophobic jabs at Navorski's expense, most of the humor comes from Navorski's indomitable enthusiasm.
Even the rote romantic encounter with a stewardess, Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), avoids overbearing emphasis -- barely. Zeta-Jones does what she can with the script, but her lines are too awkward to affect film's emotional heft. Nevertheless, the romance is forgivable given the dexterity of Hanks's performance. Rare in modern film, The Terminal serves to remind us of the abstraction, beauty, and terror of our seemingly banal lives.