The Terminal (2004)
(for brief language and drug references)
Released: June 18, 2004
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Kumar Pallana, Zoe Saldana
Remember that whole spiel I was on during my Catch Me If You Can review about how Spielberg was in a new zone? A zone where, at this point in his career, he’s primarily trying to please himself — and how exciting that can be for a filmmaker of his caliber?
Yeah, well, it can lead to this kind of crap, too.
As an enduring populist entertainer, Steven Spielberg is only rivaled by Alfred Hitchcock. Therefore, doing his variation of (Frank) Capra-corn should be an easy and satisfying softball, right?
If so, then what movie was I — an accused Spielberg-apologist — watching?
The Terminal is the kind of movie that you hope doesn’t live up to its name. But it does. Interminably. Instead of evoking all of the warm-fuzzy feels, it conjures every classic gripe ever made by Spielberg’s harshest critics.
Viktor Navorski — Tom Hanks, with an endearing if sketch-level Eastern bloc accent — is a tourist from the unstable (and fictional) country of Krakozhia on an international flight. Upon landing in New York City, he discovers that his government has fallen to a successful coup attempt.
As a consequence, Viktor is suddenly a man without a country, making his passport invalid. Without a passport, Viktor is prevented from going into the United States, from going back home, or from going, well, anywhere. Legally, he can’t leave the airport. He’s trapped, indefinitely.
But this is a movie so, of course, soon enough the adorably meek Viktor with his choppy English is making friends, falling in love, and transforming people’s lives. In short, Viktor becomes a folk hero of the entire JFK airport. Hooray for Hollywood.
The film begins with a brisk artistry as we enter the story with a clever title treatment. Not a note is heard from normally ever-present John Williams; this absence of musical underscore goes on for at least fifteen minutes, which is another interesting initial artistic choice for Spielberg. Known for his grandeur, he delivers exactly that by showing off the huge “life size” airport set that was constructed on a studio backlot.
Simultaneously, Spielberg also establishes an intimate tone that becomes the film’s personality, defined by a mix of charm and melancholy. It’s a more classic approach, akin to Billy Wilder, so it’s easy to see why Spielberg (a film buff’s film buff) was drawn to the material.
But by favoring cuteness over credibility, The Terminal ends up being far too sappy and fantastical — even for Steven Spielberg.
This is a film loaded with potential, starting with the laundry list of Oscar winners (some multiple) in key creative positions. And yet, despite having so many ringers, The Terminal fails primarily because of one problem (but it’s a big one): the screenplay.
With two different screenwriters working from a story by another, The Terminal is an inconsistent narrative hodgepodge. The script has a lot of nifty individual scenes and ideas but, collectively, they really feel forced together. Much of it comes off as desperate filler.
When assembled as a whole, each little contrivance ends up equalling one big one, the kind that not even the talents of Tom Hanks (in a quintessential Jimmy Stewart type role) or Catherine Zeta-Jones can legitimize.
Zeta-Jones in particular struggles, but by little fault of her own. As the love interest Amelia, the material she’s given is simply awful. But even if it hadn’t been, she and Hanks have absolutely zero chemistry.
Only Williams’ music score (one of the film’s few saving graces) can cue us to the fact that Viktor and Amelia are actually falling in love. It’s amazing to consider what wonders a simple casting shift could’ve done — say, to Meg Ryan — but even that wouldn’t have necessarily made the film better, just more forgivable.
Little to nothing here, or no one, has an actual motivation. It’s as if the film basks in its unlikely stream of events, coasting on the fact that all of the people involved are so adorable.
The “that would never happen” moments pile up, one on top of the next, until the entire premise collapses under the weight. It’s one thing to stretch incredulity in, say, a fantasy world like Hook; in a complete real world context, however, events need to progress with some recognizable form of how people actually behave. In The Terminal, they don’t.
Allowances could be made if character motivations were more clear. Instead, what drives each character is thin and borders on imperceptible.
There are two fundamental plot lines:
- Amelia falling in love with Viktor, which happens very quickly
- The heartless pursuit of Viktor by Airport Director Dixon (Stanley Tucci)
What actually drives these two vital characters is absolutely mystifying…well, other than the fact that the film needs them to do what they do or else there’s no movie.
Dixon’s obsession for Viktor’s demise is annoyingly petty, even for an anal-retentive by-the-book honcho on a power trip. Amelia’s near-instant attraction to Viktor, a foreigner, completely goes against how philandering and non-trusting her character has been established to be. No discernable (let alone believable) reason is provided for why she falls for this complete stranger.
Except, of course, that he’s Tom Hanks.
Dixon actually asks Amelia point-blank the most obvious question because it’s one we’re all asking it ourselves: “You’re a woman that can get anyone she wants. Why Viktor?”
Because the film needs her to. That’s the answer. It’s the only answer.
Her reply, incidentally, is a lame cop out, a deflection rather than a revelation: “A guy like you wouldn’t understand.” At one point, Amelia even says, “I must come off like a complete nutjob.” Yep, pretty much.
Various other subplots involving peripheral characters are as rushed or equally implausible.
Take the young baggage worker, for instance, who enlists Viktor to help him win the heart of a young woman who also works there. The film doesn’t take the time to establish a relationship or even a camaraderie between Viktor and the young man; the man just simply asks. Again, because the film needs him to.
Like this example, everything is motivated by nothing other than sentimentality, but sentiment is an earned result, not an inciting action. Sentiment is normally a trait that Spielberg masters; here, he simply succumbs to it. It all may elicit smiles, ooooo’s and aaaah’s, but how can anyone watching buy a single moment of any of it?
This is easily the most cloying movie of Spielberg’s career, and yet it can’t even wrap up its romance right. Not only does the couple’s eventual kiss come off as painfully awkward, but the last pivotal turn in their “Will they or won’t they?” romantic construct makes you actively hate Amelia. As a result, how can we possibly root for her (or them)?
When you’re wanting Viktor to tell her off (particularly so late in the game) because you are just so done with this person, um, that’s not a good thing.
Neither is where their relationship actually lands by film’s end.
This has to be one of the most unsatisfying, maddening, absolutely infuriating romances that I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture. It’s the kind that leaves you scratching your head and asking yourself, “What on earth were they thinking?!”
In spite of it all, Spielberg remains a master craftsman and, on that note, The Terminal is very well made. It’s unique in that respect, too; it could be described as a big budget bottle episode.
Visually, the backlit glow (a hallmark of Spielberg’s decade-long collaboration with DP Janusz Kaminski) beautifully illuminates familiar settings, giving them an aura of magic. In addition, there is some ambitious camera choreography. How it is staged is often extraordinary, and it showcases the sprawling, magnificent achievement by production designer Alex McDowell.
Even so, Spielberg unfortunately allows Kaminski to do a lot more roaming and swirling with the steadicam than he had on their previous collaborations, and it becomes a distraction. Drawing attention to itself, the camerawork often dilutes Spielberg’s specific, classic visual language to something more generically modern.
Michael Kahn’s editing flows with elegance, creating tempos and moods (both fast and measured) that every filmmaker would do well to study. If nothing else, The Terminal is an impressive example of how to “make” a great movie.
Tom Hanks has his charms and Zeta-Jones has her looks (and not much else, having been saddled with a horribly written role). The film boasts genuine visual artistry, too, and some aspects are actually inspired; a security camera’s roving eye is an ingenious recurring bit.
But it still doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work on a grand scale.
The Terminal is something from a bygone era, but one that doesn’t fit into our own. It’s the kind of antiquated eye-roller that makes you drift toward your smart phone without feeling as if you’re actually missing anything because it’s all so obvious and calculated.
1941, you’re off the hook. The Terminal is easily Steven Spielberg’s personal worst.
- The story for The Terminal is actually inspired by a real life incident. From August 1988 to August 2006 — 18 years! — Iranian political refugee Merhan Nasseri lived in the Charles DeGaulle Airport in France. Neither France, England, nor Belgium would permit Nasseri entrance or citizenship to their countries, despite legal attempts. He was eventually taken from the terminal due to an illness.
- Before going to sleep one night, Viktor makes a sign of the cross that ends with a right-to-left shoulder motion. Right-to-left is the opposite direction used by Roman Catholics, but it wasn’t a mistake on the part of Hanks. Instead, it reveals that Hanks chose to make Viktor an Eastern Orthodox Christian; they universally end the Sign of the Cross with the right-to-left motion. Hanks’ wife, actress Rita Wilson, is a Greek Orthodox Christian.
- The female love interest in the film’s subplot romance is played by Zoe Saldana. Her character is discovered to be a Trekkie, a.k.a. a hardcore fan of Star Trek. Five years after The Terminal, Saldana would eventually become Uhura in the 2009 Star Trek cinematic reboot.
- The girl with the suitcase that Viktor tries to help is Spielberg’s daughter Sasha.
- Some Spielberg Oners on display:
- A notable one: Viktor’s entrance into the terminal for the first time
- A more impressive example: a Oner during Viktor and Amelia’s dinner date. For the date, Indian janitor Gupta is their “entertainment” for the evening. During the course of one take, Gupta performs two different juggling routines.