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A totally transitory existence

Spielberg's The Terminal is based on the true story of a man who lives in an airport lounge. Not as strange as it seems, says Simon Calder - there's a unique appeal to the timeless world beyond the check-in desk

01 September 2004

Some films are left stranded by time and technology. The characters in Lethal Weapon, for example, provoke unintentional mirth among 21st-century audiences by using mobile telephones the size of house-bricks that could themselves be classed as deadly projectiles.

The Terminal, though, cannot plead the passage of time as mitigation for its lack of credibility; even before its UK release, the central premise of this movie is palpably absurd. Steven Spielberg's new film tells of an eastern European traveller, played by Tom Hanks, stranded at a transit lounge in an American airport. The fatal flaw is that there are no transit lounges at American airports. You cannot be in transit in America. You are either in or out. Almost all the action had to be filmed in a specially constructed terminal in a warehouse in Palmdale, southern California, because the real thing does not exist.

The writer and executive producer, Andrew Niccol, cannot be accused of squandering imagination on the story. It is based on the real case of an Iranian traveller who has been living for years in transit at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. For sound commercial reasons, no doubt, the nationality of both the terminal and the traveller have been changed. The main airport of France - hardly the favourite country for pro-war middle America - is replaced by America's premier gateway for overseas travellers, New York JFK. And rather than starring a national of a paid-up member of the axis of evil, Iran, the producers use a made-up nationality.

Hanks' character, Viktor Navorski, has flown in from Krakozhia. This Eastern European nation suffers a coup while his plane is in the air. For reasons that are never fully explained, this political change invalidates Navorski's passport, though nothing is heard of the hundreds of other passengers who must have arrived on the same flight.

"America is closed," he is told.

In real life, at this point the handcuffs come out. As thousands of travellers to the US have found in the past three years, if admission is refused, the next step is incarceration followed by deportation. Navorski would be held until the departure of the next flight back somewhere in the general direction of Krakozhia, and warned never to darken the doors of US immigration again. Instead, he is allowed to remain as an unwanted arrival with no departure in the 21st-century version of purgatory: the warm, bright and make-believe limbo of the airport transit lounge.

The original purpose of the transit lounge was, well, a lounge for passengers who were in transit. In the days when aircraft struggled to fly more than a couple of thousand miles, the transit lounge was an essential. If your cramped and noisy plane was putting down in Khartoum en route to South Africa, the last things you wanted to do were to stay on the aircraft during the stop, or go through Sudanese immigration formalities. In a rare piece of travel synergy, the government was keen for you to get off the plane (so you would spend cash) but disinclined to provide resources to process you.

Over the years, this role has developed commercially; Britain's first duty-free shop opened at Prestwick airport, near Glasgow, in 1959 - enabling weary transatlantic passengers to buy cheap whisky. But the welcome those pioneering travellers enjoyed when finally they reached New York, by way of the Azores and Newfoundland, was very different from the way that visitors to America are received in 2004.

About five million British people will travel to the US this year, encouraged by cheap transatlantic fares and the weak dollar. Many more will be deterred by the barriers to entry that the American government continues to erect.

Since 1987, most British people have entered the US with only a passport, under the auspices of the Visa Waiver Program. But this is getting tougher. The range of people who require a visa now extends well beyond the usual suspects of would-be students or workers. Anyone who has ever been arrested, in any country, for any offence, cannot enter America visa-free. Even if your arrest was fleeting, or your conviction has long been regarded as "spent" under British law, a youthful indiscretion may return to haunt you. For example, Euan Blair, the Prime Minister's oldest son, will not be allowed to visit the US without a visa, following the caution he received for under-age drinking.

Last year, British applicants for US visas were told they must attend an interview, either at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square in London or the Consulate-General in Belfast. This year, they began to be photographed and fingerprinted on arrival. And from 30 September, everyone who visits the US from Britain will be required to do the same. It remains to be seen how the typical, law-abiding holidaymaker takes to having their face freeze-framed and their fingerprints taken - formalities more intrusive than those of East Germany at the height of the Cold War.

Back at The Terminal, life in limbo could not be more agreeable as Tom Hanks' character settles into a pleasant enough holding-pattern. He pays frequent visits to an immigration officer, who patiently explains why she is declining his application once more. At one stage, her boss offers a deal whereby he will tell the security guards to turn a blind eye while Hanks walks through to American soil; correctly sensing a trap, Hanks declines. So he continues to spend his time foraging for sustenance among the fast-food outlets (the free crackers and ketchup constitute his normal menu du jour), and becoming part of the airport community - the fixed population amid a swirl of transience.

This part of the screenplay is more believable. Transit lounges comprise a stir-fry of humanity. They are clearing-houses between a multiplicity of origins and destinations. The most successful hubs, such as Dubai and Singapore, are those which serve as arbitrary interfaces for millions of disparate travellers, valves that allow you easily to slip from London to Sydney or Los Angeles to Delhi. They are simultaneously the most cosmopolitan spaces on earth and the most alienating: full of people who are visiting only fleetingly, and who are spatially and chronologically disorientated.

In these transportational no-man's-lands, night and day have no meaning because every passenger has his or her own version of what the time should be. Some have flown non-stop from Hong Kong, and believe it's breakfast time; others have just arrived from Vancouver and are wondering what's for dinner.

They may be in AMS or CDG, but they neither know nor care. In the abrupt manner of aviation, two of Europe's great cities, Amsterdam and Paris, are degraded to three-letter codes. And in the Gulf, the only way to tell AUH (Abu Dhabi) from KWI (Kuwait City) is that you can't get a drink in the latter.

Some airports offer tantalising glimpses of the world outside. At Singapore, you can take a free coach tour of the country while you wait for your flight; in Keflavik, Iceland's international airport, you are offered a dip in the nearby Blue Lagoon. But most transit travellers end up spending money on things they do not need at shops and restaurants they will never visit again. As a result, the fixed population develops an empathy that transcends background, rank and income (except, possibly, between BA ground staff at Heathrow and the airline's directors). Hanks' character befriends those at the margins of American society, and even a flight attendant (played, implausibly, by Catherine Zeta-Jones).

No doubt this heartwarming story of humanity prevailing over adversity and bureaucracy will make it a favourite as inflight entertainment on westbound transatlantic flights - at least on United Airlines, for whom this is the shiniest of corporate videos. The danger is that a first-time visitor to the US will believe that they will step from the aircraft into a familiar world of Starbucks and Borders and Gap, with immigration officials who are prepared to be as flexible as they are friendly. But since September 11, the presumption of innocence among the tired and huddled masses aboard the dozens of planes from Britain to America each day has been replaced by profound suspicion.

The hijackers involved in the attacks on that date had been legally admitted to the US. Naturally, the authorities have no wish to make such mistakes again. But this understandable concern has allowed intimidation to flourish among immigration staff - and led to the curious decision to eliminate the Transit Without Visa scheme. This was designed for the millions of travellers who land each year at a US airport without the slightest intention of staying in America, and involved consigning passengers to a no-frills holding-room for a few hours until their connecting flight was ready. As a means of reducing the number of people seeking formal admission to the US, it worked well, yet the scheme was cancelled amid the official hysteria over sealing American borders. As a result, every day 300 weary passengers aboard Air New Zealand's flight NZ1 from Heathrow to Auckland are obliged to get off the plane, line up to be processed (and, soon, fingerprinted) at immigration, collect their bags and go through US Customs, then immediately check in again, go through an often-intrusive security check and board the same Jumbo.

All this, of course, assumes that your plane actually reaches American soil. At the start of the year, a series of British Airways flights from Heathrow to Washington were cancelled on orders from the US Department of Homeland Security, which feared terrorists were seeking to hijack a BA 747 in a repeat of September 11. This is to miss the obvious point that September 11 could never be repeated because it relied so heavily on surprise. The reason those attacks succeeded so horrifically was because there was no previous experience of suicidal hijackers. Once that became clear to the passengers of the last aircraft to crash on that day, they attacked and tried to overpower the hijackers. A similar passenger response could be expected in the event of any similar attempt. The next big terrorist outrage could well involve transport, quite possibly aviation, but it will involve a hitherto unsuspected modus operandi. Meanwhile, the People's Republic of Transit portrayed in The Terminal remains a myth.

Aviation and Hollywood grew up together; passenger planes and talking movies are natural allies. Every arrival is laden with the excess baggage of hopes and fears, and every departure constitutes a human drama. The success of docu-soaps such as Airline and Airport depend upon such conflicts, and do not require the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy Spielberg's venture into aviation.

Even when everything is running normally, airports share a property with prisons and hospitals: they are places that rational people wish to leave as soon as possible. The same could be said for cinemas - or transatlantic aircraft - showing The Terminal.


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