What could be more dreary for the traveler than getting stuck for hours in an airport because of a layover or a cancelled flight? That universal nightmare carried to an absurd extreme is the premise of Stephen Spielberg’s new film, The Terminal. Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK International in New York from his fictional native country, Krakozhia, somewhere in East Europe. He speaks little English, so Hanks gets a chance to do funny schtick both with the East European accent and with the malapropisms that grow out of misunderstood words.
It turns out that, while he was en route, there was a coup in Krakozhia and the government cancelled all passports; in response, the U.S. voided his visa, so he’s caught as a citizen without a country. Until the political situation is resolved, he is restricted to the airport’s international lounge, his fate determined specifically by Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), an ambitious airport official bound up in red tape up to his ears. What was supposed to be a delay of a day or two stretches out for weeks. Dixon as the bad guy provides the only real conflict in the film, which unfolds as a series of airport encounters and small adventures, as Viktor, with no money, cannily uses his wits to feed himself and survive. The tone is light, the mode is fantasy.
What differentiates Viktor from Dixon, in particular, is Viktor’s warmth, openness, and humanity as contrasted with Dixon’s cold, bureaucratic heartlessness. Viktor lands a job (paid under the table) for a contractor at the airport, putting the money issue to rest, and he falls into potential romance with Amelia, a beautiful flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones), but it’s the comical characters that he befriends who provide the laughs. In particular, a janitor named Gupta (Kumar Pallana), an immigrant from India with a clouded past, enjoys watching people slip and fall on his newly mopped floors. He provides a bit of real personality and the best laughs of the supporting characters. Less interesting are a young food service worker (Diego Luna) for whom Navorski acts as go-between, and a baggage handler (Chi McBride) who seems like the offspring of the stock character, the supply sergeant, in old war movies. Amelia, too, is pretty much a one-dimensional character, but Zeta-Jones makes for great eye candy.
There are some sub-themes in the background — America as the land of immigrants, the experience of being a foreigner — but none are forcibly pressed; The Terminal is not intended to challenge anyone’s intellect.
Spielberg continues in his familiar pattern. He’s a great storyteller with insufficient editing discipline. At two hours, the length of The Terminal exceeds its interest quotient by a good twenty minutes. What keeps it afloat, however, and makes it all worthwhile, is Hanks performance, which consists of one part Chaplin (a great scene in which he is trying to get comfortable in an airport seat), one part Sid Caesar (great play with language and accents), and one part Hanks’ own personal warmth.