Spielberg: The Terminal

From the director who brought us great action adventures such as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park comes the overly sentimental rom com The Terminal starring Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski;  it’s a story of an Eastern European tourist lost between the cracks after his home county ceases to exist whilst he is mid-air to New York. He not only faces having to come to terms with war but also the heartless bureaucracy of an American system which seems hell bent on preventing him honouring his Jazz loving father’s memory.

From the outset the US officials who detain Viktor are cold and unsympathetic, cue 10 minutes worth of LETS SPEAK LOUDLY UNTIL THE FOREIGNER UNDERSTANDS, giving Hanks ample opportunity shake the dust from his Forrest Gump hat to play the trusting naïve foreigner; a surprisingly different approach to the usual anyone-with-an- accent-is-bad-M’Kay attitude of Hollywood (granted, it does tend to be a different story when it is an American playing the foreigner). 

The setting of the airport lends itself well to the consumerist society Viktor finds himself in: on being released into the terminal he is told, ‘there’s only one thing you can do… Shop!’.  It is perhaps unfair to highlight the big name brands that linger in the shots – it is an airport afterall – but that Burger King sure sneaks into a lot of frames. Indeed Viktor’s first purchase comes in the shape of a burger, upgraded later to a deluxe model … and I don’t mean to one of those real life burgers the likes of you or I would receive, I mean upgraded to one of those posterboy burgers. It made me feel both hungry and Dreamworks-cynical, and not necessarily in that order.

It is interesting  though that Spielberg decided to set The Terminal in the post 9/11 world (the ‘Denied’ stamps on Viktor’s paperwork tell us it’s 2004), it would have been a simpler and more plausible tale set pre 2001. The story is, however, a fairy tale and I don’t think Spielberg would want us fretting over reality. This film occupies a space which can shelve reality, and there is nothing wrong with that. This is the guy who brought us Robin Williams as Peter Pan after all, so having a hapless guy wandering around doing some DIY in an airport for nine months seems positively routine.

Within the airport the ever whirling destination boards are reminiscent of the clock which plagues Phil Connor (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day; whilst both characters are seemingly doomed to relive the same day, Phil trapped by time and Viktor trapped spatially within the grounds of the airport, Viktor certainly seems to take the whole experience a hell of a lot better and gets on with making the best of a bad situation. In fact Viktor does better than most people do on the outside, his occupations within the airport run from trolley collector, cupid, shoemaker’s Elf, to plasterer. Oh he also manages to snag a date with Catherine Zeta Jones whilst he’s at it. No siree, there’s no toaster in the bath or truck off a cliff for Viktor, in fact he’s takes it all rather well. 

It is perhaps this romance element of the film which is most cloying; Zeta-Jones plays Amelia Warren the all-men-are-bastards love interest which distracts Viktor from his mundane existence. Quite frankly I don’t know why he – or indeed – the filmmakers bothered. It seems as though there were some Hollywood boxes which needed to be ticked in order for the film to get the green light. Like Viktor, The romance doesn’t go anywhere, no lessons are learnt, and poor Viktor doesn’t even get a shag.

The romance does, however, lead to a sweet sequence where Viktor’s new found family divert Amelia to Viktor using various obstructions and it is this relationship with his ‘co-workers’ which is the most rewarding of the film. He soon melts the heart of the sadistic Indian cleaner whose only joy comes in watching people fall on his newly polished floor, brings two co-workers together into marriage, and wins the approval of every security guard, burger flipper, and shop worker in the goddamned joint. Of course the one person he fails to win over is the omnipresent Dixon (Stanley Tucci) who presides over his security monitors in a Sliver-like fashion, willing Viktor to disappear into the illegal alien night. Dixon if you cannot tell is the baddy of the piece.

The Terminal has some nice ideas, and probably would have worked better outside the scale of Hollywood. Whilst many small budget film would excel under Spielberg’s influence and skill, this film gets bogged down by the mass market it hoped to attract. Watching it I am desperate for a character study of the lead character, which is allegedly inspired by the real life account of an Iranian refugee Merhan Nasseri; the five minutes’ worth of upset when Viktor discovers his home country has declared war doesn’t feel sufficient somehow. Dreamworks is too big for this story, Tom Hanks too famous, and New York too familiar.

Although Spielberg is no a stranger to sentimentality, (I cried like a girl-child in E.T.) The Terminal doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The childlike feel good factor doesn’t marry up to more adult themes such uncovering heroin and extra marital affairs. The result is a disappointingly clichéd narrative which clumsily combines slapstick humour with real sentiment.  The Terminal, alas, is not Spielberg’s finest moment, or Hanks’ finest moment, or indeed Zeta Jon… oh hang on…

Overall though, be it because an Indian cleaner waved his mop like a madman in front of a plane, or because Gerard Depardieu peed where he shouldn’t have, most of us have been in a situation where our plane has been delayed and forced us to wander up and down the airport like wastrels with food vouchers, and I’m sure I am not the only one at one moment thought: ‘Jesus, this is like being in The Terminal’… and that can’t be good.

Laura M Hughes

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