The Terminal

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy Drama
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley
Rated: PG-13

There’s a story — quite possibly apocryphal — that Abraham Lincoln once agreed to do a product endorsement. “For people who like this sort of thing,” he is reported to have said, “this is the sort of thing they will like.” And regardless of whether old honest Abe ever said any such thing, it’s the best way I can think of to describe The Terminal, the latest Spielberg-Hanks offering.

This is to say that if you think Spielberg at his most soft-centered and manipulative is the bee’s knees, and that Hanks in much the same mode is the lobster’s dinner shirt, then this meandering movie is likely going to please you just fine. And, in that case, add a star to my rating and read no further. But for the more cynically minded — those who feel a twinge of something other than warm fuzziness when being as shamelessly manipulated as one of Mr. Pavlov’s famous dogs — you may want to think twice before subjecting yourself to the interminable Terminal.

Though based — oh so loosely — on the true story of Iranian traveler Mehran Karimi Nasseri, this is essentially Cast Away at J.F.K.. There’s a lot more connection between Spielberg’s film and Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis’ Hanksian crowd-pleaser from four years ago, than there is to Nasseri’s story. The specifics have merely been changed to appear new: Strand Hanks in an airport he can’t leave rather than on a desert island, give him a Planter’s peanut can rather than a mysterious Fed-Ex package, and substitute an array of cute, comical characters for a volleyball — et voila, instant movie. There’s a certain irony in this, since Zemeckis has always seemed a kind of Spielberg clone (no great shock there, since Spielberg produced a number of Zemeckis’ projects). But here the tables are turned, with the teacher becoming the pupil.

For that matter, it’s a little ironic to find Hanks retreating to this kind of safe vehicle after his efforts to broaden his range with Road to Perdition and The Ladykillers — or, if not ironic, then a little sick-making. Hanks isn’t bad in the film, but he’s never anything other than Hanks delivering a typical Hanks’ performance in a processed-cheese-food kind of role.

Nasseri’s actual story (which has already been the source of a French film and a British documentary) is a lot more bizarre than the cozy one depicted in The Terminal — especially since even after he was being freed from his airport prison, he steadfastly refused to leave. Spielberg’s version isn’t free of absurdity, but it’s of a very different sort — that which springs from a half-baked screenplay populated by types rather than characters.

Of course, there’s no way that Hanks is going to play an Iranian, so he’s become Viktor Navorski, who has come to America from a safely mythical East European country called Krakozhia, allowing him to speak in an ersatz Russian language and sport a “cute” accent. But the “cute” accents don’t stop there; we’re also treated to a lovesick immigrant (Diego Luna, Y Tu Mama Tambien) and an Indian custodian (Kumar Pallana, The Royal Tenenbaums), both of whom end up being sympathetic to Viktor’s plight in their capacity as human volleyballs.

That’s not enough, of course, so a pseudo-romance is dragged in, with Catherine Zeta-Jones as a stewardess mired in a pointless subplot-romance with a married man (Michael Nouri, Lovely and Amazing). Zeta-Jones — who brings to life Nicole Kidman’s comment about the women of Stepford being “airline-hostess nice” — awkwardly wanders in and out of the film before finally becoming the plot’s stewardess ex machina.

And, of course, there’s a bad guy in the form of perennial louse Stanley Tucci (Road to Perdition) as the head of the airport’s immigration security. It’s the sort of character that Tucci could play in his sleep — and judging by how little sense his character’s motives typically make, perhaps he did.

Not that motive is ever much examined here. Take, for example, the scene where Viktor completes an airport wall that’s under construction. I’ve yet to figure out why he does this — except that it lands him a job working construction. But then, if Tucci’s character really wants to bust Viktor — as seems the case most of the time — why does he not use the knowledge that the waylaid traveler is being paid under the table at $19 an hour? Then there’s the Diego Luna romance that the film develops for a while, forgets about for a reel, and suddenly decides to bring back in with a wedding out of absolutely nowhere.

Apparently logical structure is even less important than motive in The Terminal. Instead, we’re supposed to be entranced by easy sentiment and broad comedy, and just not notice the sloppiness — or the falseness — of it all. Finally, the movie’s about on par with its much-touted airport-terminal set — an impressive structure that looks so much like the real thing that enthusing over it is a lot like getting excited over seeing a mall — which comes complete with wildly out-of-date arrival and departure signs.

The Terminal makes no sense. It’s big and doesn’t seem to feel it needs to care. The problem is that I didn’t either.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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