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The Scotsman
Thu 2 Sep 2004
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Interminable boredom

FILM OF THE WEEK

ALISTAIR HARKNESS

The Terminal (12A) *

Directed by:
Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci

THERE’S A very brief moment near the beginning of The Terminal when Steven Spielberg’s liberal credentials come to the fore and he almost convinces us that there’s going to be a point to this otherwise staggeringly inane effort.

It happens when Stanley Tucci, playing an odious customs and immigration official at JFK airport, bemoans the current impossibility of his job. "The country’s detaining so many people there’s no goddamn room anywhere," he barks.

With this one line, Spielberg hints that the film, about a stateless Eastern European man trapped in a limbo-like existence at JFK, is going to be a comment on post-9/11 paranoia and the Bush administration’s over-zealous Department of Homeland Security.

Alas, no. At a time when even someone as recognisably American as Senator Edward Kennedy has trouble boarding a plane without being flagged as a potential security risk, Spielberg has made a sentimental, happy-clappy story about the enduring nature of the human spirit.

This should probably have been obvious from the casting of a portly Tom Hanks as the film’s down-home Slavic hero. He plays Vicktor Navorski, a comedy-accented tourist from the fictitious Russian satellite nation of Krakovhia, denied entry into the US when a military coup in his homeland invalidates his travel visa mid- flight. Unable to speak any English, and sporting the universal Hollywood peasant uniform (nondescript brown clothes, two-day stubble, look of befuddled wonderment), he’s like an immigrant Forrest Gump: a bumbling, pure-of-heart simpleton ready to touch the lives of everyone he meets. (Actually that’s slightly unfair: he’s not really a simpleton, he’s merely a foreigner, but in the world of The Terminal the two things are much the same.)

The crux of the problem is that, even though Viktor can’t set foot outside the airport door, he can’t return home either until the US government recognises the new administration of his country. Thus, having fallen through a bureaucratic crack, he is forced to take up residence in the international transit lounge where, as the months pass, he learns English, makes friends with the airport’s multi-racial band of low-wage slaves, and manages to woo a neurotic air stewardess called Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

IF THIS ALL sounds ridiculously implausible, you should be aware the basic premise is very loosely based on the real-life case of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian exile who has been living in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris since losing his papers in 1988. That the film feels so phoney, then, is wholly down to Spielberg and his screenwriters, Sacha Gervasi (The Big Tease) and Jeff Nathenson (Catch Me If You Can, and Speed 2: Cruise Control).

Over its two hours-plus running time, rather than putting Hanks through his existential paces with some Samuel Beckett-inspired introspection (or even supplying him with the kind of drama that made his turn in Cast Away so compelling), the best this team can come up with is a series of cutesy scenarios.

Viktor becomes a go-between for a lovesick caterer and a pretty immigration official; works out a money-making scheme that allows him to feast at Burger King; reveals himself to be a master tradesman; and even builds a fountain out of a disused toilet to express his love for Amelia. All the while no-one questions why a strange man has been allowed to wander freely through one of the busiest airports in the world doing whatever takes his fancy. Indeed, there are so many insultingly banal plot developments it’s barely worth analysing them. Suffice to say that when we do finally learn the reason for Viktor’s journey, it’s so fatuous that it almost plays like a bad joke on the audience.

THIS IS EASILY Spielberg’s worst movie since 1989’s Always. It has none of the breeziness of Catch Me if You Can, none of the technical chutzpah of Minority Report and, ironically, lacks the believable human element of his earlier alien-themed movies, ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That said, this is a film about a man stuck in an airport for 11 months and, if Spielberg set out to make us experience exactly what that’s like, then he has succeeded.

• Alastair McKay is away.
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