And you thought your flight was bad. Viktor Navorski, an East European given the full Slavic treatment by a doughy Tom Hanks, arrives at New York's JFK Airport and never makes it beyond the International Transit Lounge. His native country, Krakozhia, erupted into civil war while Viktor was crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and as a result U.S. immigration authorities are refusing to recognize his visa. Unable to return home, unable to leave the airport, Viktor settles in for the long haul. And so do we as Steven Spielberg's The Terminal tries to make sense out of such an absurd situation. Billing itself as a "serious comedy," The Terminal is genuinely amusing, especially early on, but it may not take itself seriously enough. Since 9/11, a lot of us have spent a lot of time hanging around airports. The world is ready for a penetrating look at these no-there-there places, with their heightened security and lowered expectations, their fluorescent lighting and piped-in music, their air of permanent transience.
Alas, The Terminal doesn't dig very deep.
Instead, it's a rather upbeat paean to the common man and his uncommon decency -- a Frank Capra movie without the lengthening shadows that always threatened to engulf Capra's heroes. George Bailey had to go through hell to realize It's a Wonderful Life, whereas Viktor accepts his fate like a modern-day Candide. The movie's most enjoyable scenes are the early ones, when Viktor's piecing together a life in the airport's nooks and crannies. A little free catsup and a little free mustard between a couple of free crackers, et voilÃ: lunch. Hanks played a similar role in Cast Away, where he wound up talking to a soccer ball, and he knows how to put these scenes over, knows how to underplay, let a bit take care of itself. Hassled by a Homeland Security honcho (Stanley Tucci) who's gunning for a promotion, Viktor proves far craftier than his thick Krakozhian accent would indicate. And before long he's befriended the airport's support staff, each of whom adds another ingredient to the movie's melting-pot stew.
We're supposed to realize that places like JFK have become the new Ellis Island, ports of entry where the world's huddled masses pause briefly on their way to the Land of Freedom. And we're supposed to notice that the borders aren't as porous as they once were. But Spielberg and his scriptwriters, Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, seem reluctant to really tackle these ideas. The movie's all gums, no teeth, although it makes attempts at biting satire. ("There's only one thing you can do here," Viktor's told upon arrival at what's basically a mini-mall. "Shop.") Viktor's prison sentence in bureaucratic limbo, which might have seemed like something out of Kafka, instead seems like something out of...well, Spielberg. He even makes a cozy home for himself in Gate 67, which is closed for remodeling. And he gets something like a romance off the ground with Catherine Zeta-Jones' Amelia, a flight attendant who's thrown her life at married men. Excuse me, but would a woman like Amelia even notice a guy like Viktor?
Zeta-Jones tries to transform herself into a woman who might, but the flat Nebraska accent doesn't get the job done. As for Hanks, he doesn't try to turn Viktor into Prince Charming, to his credit. But it's always sad to watch a great actor wrestle an underdeveloped role to the ground. Hanks doesn't just pour on the fairy dust, as Robin Williams did in Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson, but the fairy dust is falling on him, sprinkling onto his shoulders like dandruff. It so happens that Viktor is based on an actual person, Merhan Nasseri, an Iranian citizen who's lived inside Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport since 1988. Having finally achieved status as a political refugee, Nasseri is free to leave but doesn't. And there's something a lot more weird and provocative about his situation than about Viktor's. He truly is a man without a country, whereas Viktor is a citizen of the world, endlessly adaptable. For most of us, airports are a blur of arrivals and departures, an exercise in weightlessness. For Viktor, they're home sweet home.