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, Jumar Pallana, Zoe Saldana
Remember that whole spiel I was on during my Catch Me If You Can review about Spielberg being in a new career zone? One where, at this point, 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. Doing his variation of (Frank) Capra corn should be an easy and satisfying softball, right? So what movie was I – an accused Spielberg-apologist – watching? The Terminal is the kind of movie 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 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. Upon landing in New York City, he discovers that his government has fallen to a coup, thus invalidating his passport. As a consequence, he’s a man without a country, preventing him from leaving the airport either into the U.S. or to go back home. He’s trapped, indefinitely, but of course soon enough he’s making friends, falling in love, transforming people’s lives, and becoming a folk hero of the entire JFK airport.
Things open quickly enough, briskly entering the story with a clever title treatment, and not a note from normally ever-present John Williams for at least fifteen minutes. Spielberg, known for his grandeur, establishes an intimate tone that is maintained throughout, even while also taking advantage of showing off the huge “life size” airport set constructed on a studio backlot. It’s a more classic approach, like 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.
The film is loaded with potential, namely the laundry list of Oscar winners (some multiple) in key creative positions. Yet with so many ringers, The Terminal fails mostly in just one area, but it’s a big one: the screenplay. With two screenwriters working from a story by another, a “too many cooks in the kitchen” inconsistency defines this narrative hodgepodge. The script has a lot of nifty individual scenes and ideas that, collectively, have to be forced together; much of it comes off as desperate filler.
Each little contrivance, when assembled as a whole, simply equals one big one, and not even the talents of Tom Hanks (in a quintessential Jimmy Stewart type role) or Catherine Zeta-Jones can legitimize them. As Amelia, the love interest, Zeta-Jones in particular struggles. The material she’s given is awful, so I sympathize, but even if it hadn’t been, she and Hanks have zero chemistry. Only Williams’ music (one of the film’s few saving graces) cues us to the fact that they’re actually falling in love. It’s amazing what wonders a casting shift – say, to Meg Ryan – could’ve done, but even that wouldn’t have made the film necessarily better, just more forgivable.
Little to nothing, or no one, has an actual motivation. It’s as if the film basks in its unlikely stream of events simply because all of the people involved are so, well, 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, Hook, but in a completely real world context, events need to progress with some recognizable form of how people actually behave. In The Terminal, they don’t.
Allowances could be given if character motivations were more clear, but instead they’re weak bordering on imperceptible. In both fundamental plot lines – Amelia’s quick fall for Viktor, and then the heartless pursuit of Viktor by Airport Director Dixon (Stanley Tucci) – what actually drives these characters is mystifying, other than the film simply 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 her philandering/non-trusting character is established. 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 asks Amelia the obvious, because we’re all asking it ourselves: “You’re a woman that can get anyone she wants. Why Viktor?” Because (repeat after me) the film needs her to. (Her reply, incidentally, is a lame “A guy like you wouldn’t understand” cop out.) At one point she even says, “I must come off like a complete nutjob.” Yep, pretty much.
Various other subplots involving peripheral characters are rushed or equally implausible, such as a young baggage worker 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 camaraderie between Viktor and the young man; the man simply asks. Again, the film needs him to. It’s all motivated by nothing other than sentimentality, a Spielberg trait that he normally masters rather than succumbs to. It all may elicit smiles, but how can anyone 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 their eventual kiss come off as painfully awkward (akin to Al Gore forcing himself on Tipper at that one Democratic National Convention), but the last turn in the “Will they or won’t they?” construct makes you actively hate Amelia, not root for her (or them). When you’re wanting Viktor to tell her off (particularly so late in the game) because you’re just done with this person, um, that’s not a good thing.
Neither is where their relationship actually lands by film’s end. It has to be one of the most unsatisfying, maddening, infuriating romances I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture. The kind that has 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, almost like a big budget bottle episode. The backlit glow – a hallmark of Spielberg’s decade-long collaboration with DP Janusz Kaminski – beautifully illuminates otherwise familiar settings, plus the camera choreography throughout this massive set is extraordinary, showcasing production designer Alex McDowell‘s magnificent, sprawling achievement.
Even so, Spielberg unfortunately allows Kaminski to do a lot more roaming and swirling with the steadicam than he has previously, and that dilutes Spielberg’s classic visual language to something more generically modern. Michael Kahn’s editing flows with elegance, creating tempos and, subsequently, 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, Zeta-Jones has her looks (and not much else, saddled with a horribly written role), the film boasts visual artistry, and some moments 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. It’s something from a bygone era that doesn’t fit into our own, the kind 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.
Available to rent through Amazon Video.
- The story 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. France, England, nor Belgium would permit him entrance or citizenship, 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 from right-to-left shoulder, the opposite direction of Roman Catholics, revealing that he’s Eastern Orthodox. Hanks’ wife, actress Rita Wilson, is a Greek Orthodox Christian.
- Zoe Saldana’s character, the female love interest in the subplot romance, is discovered to be a Trekkie. Ironically, she would eventually become Uhura in the recent Star Trek cinematic reboot.
- The girl with the suitcase that Viktor tries to help is Spielberg’s daughter Sasha.
- More Spielberg Oners are on display. Viktor’s entrance into the terminal for the first time is a notable one, but perhaps the most impressive is during Viktor and Amelia’s dinner date. The Indian janitor Gupta is their “entertainment” for the evening, and during the course of one take h e does two different bits of juggling.