(director: Steven Spielberg; screenwriters: story by Andrew Niccol/Jeff Nathanson/Sacha Gervasi; cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski; editor: Michael Kahn; music: John Williams; cast: Tom Hanks (Viktor Navorski), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Amelia Warren), Stanley Tucci (Frank Dixon), Chi McBride (Joe Mulroy), Diego Luna (Enrique Cruz), Barry Shabaka Henley (Thurman), Kumar Pallana (Gupta Rajan), Zoë Saldana (Dolores Torres); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Steven Spielberg/Laurie MacDonald/Walter Parkes; DreamWorks; 2004)

“That Spielberg refuses to go after bigger game keeps the film a banal exercise in sentimentality.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, an Eastern European from a fictional country called Krakozhia, who visits NYC carrying a Planters Peanuts tin filled with autographs of jazz greats his deceased dad collected. But when a violent coup takes place in his homeland just as his plane lands, Viktor becomes stateless and trapped at Kennedy International Airport in Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal.” The officious immigration security chief Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) follows the letter of the law and refuses to allow him to leave the international terminal lounge until the war in Viktor’s country is settled and there’s a legitimate country for him to return to.

It’s a Capra-esque-like feel-good comedy, but without an edge and its narrative is so slight that only a skilled filmmaker like Spielberg could make such a flimsy film come out at least bearable. The film is based on a concept by Andrew Niccol and further explored by Sacha Gervasi, while Jeff Nathanson (writer for Catch Me If You Can) came on board later to help with the screenplay. The Terminal draws its inspiration from the true story of Iranian refugee Merhan Nasseri, who has been living in Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport since 1988 due to a series of political snafus (though now able to leave, the dissident refuses to budge).

Hanks looks as if he’s doing an impersonation of Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson, as he dresses frumpy, walks with a slouch, acts childlike and friendly without any hostility, and babbles in an invented Slavic language. Hanks being trapped in a crowded terminal with his visa invalidated learns how to survive in a shopping area, which is almost like the Robinson Crusoe-like Hanks surviving in Cast Away when stuck on a desert island.

The film’s biggest laugh comes as a result of Hanks’ broken English, as he tells a lovesick airport worker “he cheats” which sounds like “eat shit.” There was surprisingly little else that was amusing (a lot of pratfalls on a slippery floor that are imitative of Jacques Tati-like routines, unfortunately they fell short of being funny), but a lot of unbelievable sappy workplace sitcom stuff as Hanks bonds with a colorful multi-ethnic group of workers—with Kumar Pallana as the paranoid Indian janitor, Diego Luna as the lovesick Latino food-services worker, and Chi McBride the good-natured African-American baggage handler. There’s also a platonic romantic encounter with neurotic 39-year-old airline stewardess Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), stuck in a dead-end relationship with a married man, that had no energy and seemed forced–a criticism which can actually be said about the entire film.

By the time Viktor’s situation is resolved after his nine-month forced stay, everything felt phony from the mysterious reason for Viktor’s visit, to his relationships with America’s melting pot workforce, to the good-natured spin put on his detention as he becomes a hero to the little people; and, finally, the premise of Viktor turning an airport into a home seemed forced as a comedy situation. Spielberg aimed all his energy in telling about the immigrant experience–that with a good work ethic and right attitude an immigrant could make it in this country despite the initial language and culture barriers. I had the uneasy feeling that anything goes here to keep things lightweight and not political, though the situation certainly left openings to say something darker and bigger about post-9/11 airport fears and Homeland Security. That Spielberg refuses to go after bigger game keeps the film a banal exercise in sentimentality without a point of return.

Acting field commissioner Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) grows increasingly annoyed by Viktor's willingness to accept being stuck in the airport.