"The Terminal"
Dir: Steven Spielberg

Patricia Ducey

Lost in Mis-Translation

Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal is a sweet and unassuming fable that starts slow but steadily grows into a warmhearted romantic comedy, thanks in large part to the affecting acting of Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones and a group of talented character actors. Hanks plays Victor Navorski, a traveler from the imaginary Eastern European country of Krakozhia, who lands at JFK just in time to see on airport TVs, to his horror, that a revolution has erupted back home. By the time he hands his passport to the Homeland Security agent at Customs, the military coup has dissolved his country and his passport is therefore invalidated. Not to worry, the officials tell him, we’ll have this cleared up in a twinkle. Anyone who has spent a night stuck in an airport, say, O’Hare on the night of The Great Blizzard, immediately thinks hah! and Kafka! and rightly so, for soon Victor finds himself in a maddening bureaucratic limbo, unable to go forward or backward . The airport officials cannot figure out what to do with him, so he is banished for days, weeks and eventually months to the International Lounge – a no man’s land for passengers without a country.

Stanley Tucci plays Frank Dixon, the airport security underling who sees Victor’s dilemma and ultimately his very presence as a threat to a promotion he covets. Tucci’s role could have used more psychological complexity -- think Kane and his Rosebud – to soften the harsh edge of his performance, out of a place in a romantic comedy. The resourceful Victor soon learns to survive without Dixon’s help, though. He collects carts to earn money for food, shaves in the men’s room like so many other travelers, practices English from tour books, and builds a nest in a vacant corner of a storeroom. Eventually he stands up to Dixon and wins the admiration of the airport workers and entre´ into their loose family of baggage handlers, burger slingers, and customs agents. Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien), Chi McBride (Boston Public) and especially 82-year-old Indian actor Shabaka Henley delight as his circle of close friends and supporters.

After he sets up residence, Victor meets flight attendant Zeta-Jones, who is as beautiful as she is troubled by a lethal attraction to faithless men, the current one keeping her on a string that stretches pretty thin at times across the time zones and hotel rooms that make up their life together.

Spielberg and his script writers, Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, keep us guessing to the end about whether Victor’s new love affair will work out or not and, especially, why Victor came to New York in the first place. Their writing talents prove equal to the director’s technical finesse and place this film in a firm number two spot below my favorite Spielberg film, Empire of the Sun, written by the great Tom Stoppard.

Terminal is loosely based on a real incident, the story of an Iranian national who was marooned in a Paris airport for many months after the fall of the Shah. Some have likened the film to those of Frank Capra, and Victor is certainly dignified, determined and generous enough to fill the shoes of any Capraesque hero. For me, though, the wearying repetition of off color dialogue, interjected no doubt to ward off the dreaded G rating, dulled a bit of that glow.

In the end, though, minor quibbles all. John Williams’ lovely musical score, Janusz Kaminski’s warm cinematography, and the rich performances all add to Spielberg’s paean to the everyday heroes who still walk among us whether in real life or the artificial micro-world of the airport terminal.

-- Patricia Ducey

Copyright Web del Sol, 2004

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