Dir.: Steven Spielberg
PG-13, 128 min.
Now showing at area theaters
The Terminal would probably be better if it were stuck on a shelf for about 15 to 20 years, so that it could be rediscovered in a different world, with different expectations. Part of the problem with Steven Spielberg's latest is that it's a charming, airport-bound fable released at a time when security checks and terror alerts have made airports decidedly un-charming. But the bigger problem is that Spielberg and his star Tom Hanks have been cranking out fairly daring films lately, and this is not one of them. The Spielberg who gambled on the electrifyingly weird A.I., the jazzy genre mash-up Minority Report and the giddy, queasy '60s immersion Catch Me If You Can has been replaced by Spielberg the crowd-pleaser, who squeezes light comedy and sentiment out of a scenario that should be played for sheer absurdity.
Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a citizen of the nation of Krakozia, which undergoes a revolution while he's flying to New York City. With his passport and his exit visa now invalid, Navorski is stuck in the international terminal at JFK airport, under the watchful eye of security agent Frank Dixon (played by Stanley Tucci), who half-hopes that the man without a country will make a break for it, so he'll be arrested and become somebody else's problem. But Navorksi stays, day after day and week after week, finding ways to scrounge an existence on what other travelers leave behind.
That's really all the plot this movie needs, but screenwriters Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson and Andrew Niccol add a lot more, including a love interest for Navorski (a man-crazy stewardess played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), a set of friends with subplots of their own (played by Chi McBride, Diego Luna and Kumar Pallanagood to know that Spielberg's been watching some indie films), and a mysterious mission involving a rusty old can of nuts. When the nut-can mystery is explained, it's admittedly clever, but still unnecessary. Navorski doesn't need any important reason to be traveling to New York. Let him be a tourist, or a conventioneer; what matters is that he gets stuck in an airport and what he does there.
Because, honestly, all the airport stuff is pretty delightful. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky make the international terminal look like a consumerist wonderland, all clean and glassy. The director plays with the multiple frames allowed by split-levels, storefronts and security monitors, and he even makes purposeful use of a Borders bookstore, frequently positioning its sign between people of different nationalities. As Navorski innocently thwarts Dixon's attempts to constrain him, Spielberg subtly plays out a lot of his pet themes: the desire to peek behind curtains, the importance of individual dignity, and the way humans create social systems that bind us more than we intend.
I know it's not fair to pretend a movie is anything other than it isto say, "If this were in French it would be hailed as a masterpiece," or, "If only it were 20 minutes shorter." But I can't help thinking that The Terminal is like one of those movies from generations ago that pops up on TCM or gets reissued on DVD, where new viewers can marvel at the sense of design and crackerjack acting, and ignore all creaky plot machinery. The Terminal is in some ways a wasted opportunity, but it's also unusual and kind of magical, and some day it'll be fun for Spielberg scholars to figure out how it fits into his recent, free-ranging filmography. At the least, The Terminal's single set and simple motivations make it unlike a Hollywood summer movie, even as the over-fussy story arc makes it too much like one.
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