A Study in Spielberg: The Terminal (2004)

23 Apr


Normally when I am watching a Spielberg movie I am focused on the direction, on what makes the movie tick with regards to his input.  The Terminal may be the first movie in his cannon in which my focus was off the filmmaking and tuned into the lead performance.  This is the third time that Spielberg directed Tom Hanks and as I watched the film again last night I began to realize that under his direction, Hanks has given some of the best performances of his career.  That’s due in large part to the fact his association with Spielberg affords him the ability to try new things and take chances.

The Terminal may reveal Tom Hanks’ most challenging role to date.  This all-American actor, for the first time plays a foreigner.  Viktor Navorski is like nothing he has ever played before, a Bulgarian immigrant who speaks no English – if we believe this performance then the movie will work.  If it falls flat, then so does the whole movie.

For my money it does work, here is Hanks playing a man who doesn’t speak English and if we can believe him in that capacity then we are along for the ride.  If we don’t then it falls apart.  That’s mainly because he is the icon of the average American, the guy in the middle; not the superhero in tights, but the working-class hero that we all identify with.

In the role Viktor Navorsky you have to separate what has come before, you have to rid yourself of what you saw in Sleepless in Seattle and Big and You’ve Got Mail and look at him with fresh eyes.  Some found this impossible, but not me.  I see a whole new persona in the same way that did in Forrest Gump.

Navorski has just arrived in New York’s JFK airport when the news comes that his country back home has been the target of a massive coup.  A new regime has taken over the government and the United States no longer recognizes it.  The airport’s Director of Customs and Border control (Stanley Tucci) informs Viktor that he cannot go home, nor can he enter the United States because his Visa is no longer valid.  He is, essentially, a citizen of nowhere with only JFK airport to call home.

Trapped in a strange land, unsure what has happened back home, and not completely sure what is happening to him here at the airport, Viktor is forced to settle in for a long stay, and what the airport staff is not prepared for is how resourceful this man is.  He begins living at an airport gate that is waiting for the construction crew; he makes money returning carts; he buys English translation books and he even develops a sweet romance with a pretty stewardess (Catherine Zeta Jones).

That develops is the kind of human interest story that Preston Sturges or Frank Capra might have made.  It’s an interesting human interest story about a man stuck in an impossible situation and deciding to make the best of it.  What I noticed watching the film again the other night, is just how watchable Tom Hanks is.  As in Cast Away, he’s fascinating when he’s just doing something, working on a project, or just making the best of a bad situation.  Watching him build a makeshift bed out of waiting room chairs is kind of mesmerizing.

I was also fascinating by the setting.  The film was not shot at JFK, it’s all a soundstage built inside an airport hangar.  The set is so intricately detailed and so beautifully constructed that I went on the internet to find out which airport this was film in.  I was stunned when I found out that it was all manufactured.  I admit I was fooled.

The Terminal is a sort-of Cinema Cozy, a movie that you want to curl up with under a blanket with a cup of tea.  It has no real meaning, no real agenda, no real points to be made.  It’s entertaining because it’s just about a human being dealing with his surroundings.  It’s a movie I’m going to watch again when the weather is bad outside.  I look forward to it.


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