Friday, June 25, 2004

'The Terminal'

—Originally published 6.25.04

Steven Spielberg plays it too safe to be my favorite director, but he is certainly the master of balancing artistic filmmaking with a mass-audience-pleasing product.

Never is this more evident than "The Terminal," a laugh-out-loud yet touching film that, like most Spielberg outings, wraps up a little too nicely.

Tom Hanks, the best mega-star actor in the business, is his usual brilliant self in the starring role as Victor Navorski, an Eastern European whose fictional home country undergoes a military coup during his trip across the Atlantic.

The uprising leaves Navorski without a country and, because of a loophole in our nation's laws, he is stuck in the neither-here-nor-there region of New York's JFK airport, better known as the International Transit Lounge.

The movie follows Navorski as he struggles to survive in the terminal -- a man with no country, no money and no English. He takes up residence in a section of the airport set for renovation, makes money doing odd jobs like returning carts and construction, and so on.

As if the odds against him aren't stacked high enough, Navorski also must endure Homeland Security Acting Field Commissioner Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). As a man who wants everything in his airport to be just so, Navorski is naturally a gigantic fly in the obsessive-compulsive ointment. Dixon goes to great lengths to get Navorski out of his way, using deception, intimidation, blackmail -- whatever it takes.

So we watch Navorski as he begins to cope with his surroundings -- learning to read by comparing his native New York City tourism guide with an English version, washing up in the men's restroom, trying to earn food money by retrieving carts and performing odd jobs.

Along the way he meets all sorts of odd characters who, although they have a place to call home, still seem as stranded in their lives as Navorski is in the terminal. Enter Catherine Zeta-Jones, stunning as always, as a troubled United Airlines flight attendant whom Navorski befriends and eventually falls in love with during his year-long stay in the airport. There's also Enrique (Diego Luna), who stocks the planes with food but enlists Navorski in a plot to win the heart of an immigration officer. Or there's the illegal immigrant janitor hiding from the law in plain sight; he thinks Navorski is an undercover C.I.A. agent come to get him.

All of these supporting characters are well-developed; however, all we know about the stranded European is his desire to reach a certain hotel in New York City. As the movie unfolds, we learn the purpose for his trip to the Big Apple, but little else.

This lack of development is the film's greatest failure. Its two most prominent characters, Navorski and Dixon, are polar opposites, yet we have no idea why the European is so excessively nice and Dixon is so excessively cruel. I guess we're just supposed to accept this as a necessary source of conflict and move on, but it prevents "The Terminal" from becoming a truly great film.

The film sports Spielberg's trademark class, charm and fluidity and Hanks is a pleasure to watch, as always -- his mere presence elevates this movie from merely watchable to exceedingly entertaining. That is, of course, if you're able to enjoy "The Terminal" for what it is: A well-crafted piece of filmmaking with a big heart, lots of laughs and quality performances, but little lasting impact.

Grade: B+

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