Plot seized by customs

September 11, 2004

The Terminal (PG)
National release

I WOULDN'T like it to be misconstrued by the powers that be as un-American, but I don't like transiting through American airports. American authorities don't seem to have the same kind of understanding of transit as they do in Europe or Asia. On more then one occasion I've flown into LA en route to a final destination in Canada, only to miss my connecting flight because of the insistence of authorities that even transit passengers must collect their baggage and go through US customs and immigration -- and that was long before the tragic events of three years ago made things even more difficult.

So I was in complete sympathy with the plight of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), who spends most of the two-hours-plus running time of Steven Spielberg's new film, The Terminal, unable to leave New York's Kennedy Airport (or a close facsimile, since the film was shot on a huge studio set).

Viktor hails from a fictional Eastern European country and has the great misfortune to be in the air when a military coup takes place in his homeland. As a result, the immigration authorities and head of security Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) deny him entry to the US on the grounds that his passport and visa are no longer valid. Nor can he fly out again without documents, so he finds himself in a kind of limbo, unable to leave what is optimistically referred to as the transit section of the airport.

Something like this actually happened, not in the US, but in France. Since 1988, an Iranian, Merhan Karimi Nessari, has been living in Terminal One of the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris; in 1994, a French film, Lost in Transit, was made about him.

It would, presumably, have been too much to have an actor of the status of Hanks play an Iranian, so the screenplay, by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, based on a story by Andrew Niccol and Gervasi, makes Viktor a citizen of the imaginary Krakhozia, but whether European or Middle Eastern, the point is the same: American officialdom isn't exactly welcoming towards foreigners who don't fit into the mould.

Dixon actually hopes that Viktor will attempt to break the law and try to escape the confines of the terminal; that way, he can be arrested and removed from the airport. Viktor attempts no such thing. Instead, he painstakingly teaches himself English and forms relationships with maintenance staff at the airport, just about all of whom represent one ethnic minority or another.

It's an intriguing idea for a feature film, especially a film from a populist such as Spielberg, and it's hard not to compare Viktor's plight with the predicament of other refugees or illegal immigrants who find themselves imprisoned without any possibility of escaping into the outside world that is so tantalisingly close. However, the main theme of the film is that it's important to be generous and kind; this is a lesson the imprisoned Viktor understands better than his American jailers, however.

It's also a lesson that is laid on with a trowel. The Terminal may have the most intriguing premise, but it's the least successful film of Spielberg's career. This is mostly because, despite its basis in truth, the concept is such a contrived one and the bad guys -- the American officials led by the unbending Dixon -- are so caricatured.

Spielberg has a lot of fun with the marginal people who work at the airport, especially with the character of Gupta (Kumar Pallana), an Indian cleaner. Pallana will be familiar to those who have seen Wes Anderson's films, and he gives the film's most engaging performance as a man whose wily resourcefulness belies his humble occupation.

Less convincing is the flight attendant, Amelia, played by Catherine Zeta Jones. Involved in an affair with a married man, and uncertain how she feels about it, Amelia is a stock characterisation, but she's not the only one in the film. There are also the young lovers, Enrique (Diego Luna), a caterer, and Dolores (Zoe Saldana), an immigration officer, whose romance is facilitated by Viktor.

The mood of the film veers back and forth between drama, light comedy and sentimental feel-good cosiness. Its qualities -- Spielberg's belief in the goodness in human nature -- are offset by the surprising crassness of the approach, which includes John Williams's inappropriate music score. Worst of all is the conclusion to this over-long exercise, in which we discover just why Viktor wanted to visit New York. This seems so improbable that it's really quite annoying. Surely it would have been more effective had he genuinely wanted to spend time in America, and not for the reason given.

So, despite another interesting performance from Hanks (certainly better here than in his embarrassing role in The Ladykillers), The Terminal proves to be a frustratingly unsatisfying screen experience.

Incidentally, although the airport set looks magnificently authentic, I was surprised that nowhere on display was a photograph of George W. Bush; my experience of American airports has been that a photograph of the President always features prominently in the arrivals hall.


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