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Terminal, The

D: Steven Spielberg / 128m

Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Kumar Pallana, Zoe Saldana, Eddie Jones, Michael Nouri

Arriving at JFK International Airport, Viktor Navorski (Hanks) learns that while he was travelling from his home country of Krakozhia, a civil war has broken out and all travel permits and visas have been suspended; this means he can’t return home.  To make matters worse, the US government is refusing to recognise the revolutionary Krakozhian government, so won’t allow anyone from there to enter the US.  This makes Viktor “unacceptable”.  The only place he can stay is in the airport’s international terminal, something that Customs and Border Protection head Frank Dixon (Tucci) isn’t happy about but believes will be only temporary.

Viktor settles in at Gate 67 which is unfinished.  From there he ventures forth each day in the hope that the civil war has ended and he can either go home or go into New York as he’d originally planned (he has made a promise to do something for his father, who has recently died).  Through this he strikes up a friendship with Dolores (Saldana), a Customs officer who processes visa applications.  This in turn leads to a friendship with Enrique (Luna), an airport worker who has a crush on Dolores.  In return for food that hasn’t been used on flights, Viktor learns about Dolores’ likes and dislikes and relays this information back to Enrique.  During this time, Viktor also meets air stewardess Amelia (Zeta-Jones).  His attraction to her is tempered by her seeing a married man, Max (Nouri), but a relationship develops between them nevertheless.

As Viktor gets to know more of the airport staff – including Mulroy (McBride) and Gupta (Pallana) – Dixon becomes more and more irritated by his presence in the airport.  He tries to persuade Viktor to leave the airport but Viktor doesn’t take the bait.  With an important inspection coming up that will help towards an expected promotion, Dixon is anxious that nothing interfere with his plans, yet when a desperate Russian with undocumented drugs for his father arrives on the day of the inspection, Viktor interprets for him and resolves the situation with a lie, making Dixon furious with him. This makes Viktor very popular with the rest of the airport staff.

Viktor also continues to see Amelia when she flies in and when she tells him she’s stopped seeing Max, Viktor arranges a romantic dinner but it turns out Amelia has resumed the relationship (though this has an unexpected benefit later on).  When the war in Krakozhia ends, Dixon tells Viktor he has to return home and that he can’t go into New York; with the plane home ready to take off, Gupta stands on the tarmac and blocks it from moving, giving Viktor the chance to leave the airport and honour the promise he made to his father.

Terminal, The - scene

With a wonderful central performance from Hanks, The Terminal is glossy whimsy of the highest quality, a modern day fairy tale that features a princess in peril (Amelia), a wicked ogre (Dixon), three fairy godmothers (Enrique, Mulroy and Gupta), a maid (Dolores), and a handsome prince (Viktor – kind of).  It’s hugely enjoyable and is the type of movie that you can watch over and over again and still spot things you missed every other time (such as the head of the Statue of Liberty – keep an eye peeled, it’s there).  And like all good fairy tales it has a happy ending (though not the kind you might be thinking of).

Based around the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who spent eighteen years living in the departure lounge of Terminal One at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, The Terminal downplays the drama inherent in such a predicament in favour of a heartwarming tale that is often hilarious, and which adds a romantic element that is both cute and bittersweet.  The script by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson is structured much like a play, with act one concerning Viktor’s arrival at the airport, act two detailing his coming to terms with living in the airport, and act three showing his becoming a valued and respected member of the airport “staff”.  It’s a cleverly constructed script, with nods to wider issues such as immigration and racism, but included in such a way that they don’t intrude on the feelgood, aspirational  drive of the movie, or its message that tenacity and self-belief will always see you through.

It’s Viktor’s positive nature – so ably portrayed by Hanks – that is so affecting, his resourcefulness and persistence the very qualities we would like to think we’d have if we were in his position.  Hanks is nothing less than superb in a performance that is as richly nuanced as any other he’s given.  His choice of expressions alone offers a masterclass in acting; the scene in the men’s room when a traveller asks him, “Ever feel like you’re living in an airport?” is worth watching just for the stupefied look Viktor gives as a silent reply – and it’s made all the more impressive for being a reflection (and Hanks makes it all seem so effortless).

He has some great support too.  Zeta-Jones, still fresh from her Oscar-winning turn in Chicago (2002), makes Amelia appealing and sad at the same time, and in doing so makes the character more credible as Viktor’s possible love interest.  As the hard-nosed Customs and Borderland Protection administrator, Tucci is contained and hard to like but it’s a subtler performance than at first meets the eye, with echoes of a more sympathetic man showing through at odd moments.  And then there’s Pallana, whose deceptively expressive features are a joy to watch, his character’s unwavering paranoia amusing and wistful and, ultimately, well justified.  Luna plays Enrique as an adorable puppy, while McBride and Hensley are more stoic, and as Dolores, Saldana’s sunny approach to the character makes her more and more likeable as the movie goes on (it’s also fun to discover that Dolores is a Trekkie).

With all this favourable material allied to a raft of great performances, it comes as no surprise that Spielberg orchestrates everything with consummate ease, employing a lightness of touch that helps elevate Viktor’s plight from personal tragedy to unalloyed victory.  There’s more than a hint of Thirties screwball comedy in The Terminal, especially in Viktor’s confrontations with Dixon, and it’s to Spielberg’s credit that he augments such a contemporary story with such “old-fashioned” elements, and does it so seamlessly.  As with Hanks’ performance, this is one of Spielberg’s less appreciated movies, but one serious misstep aside – would Dixon really have been promoted after he grabbed Viktor by the neck and remonstrated with him? – he hits the movie out of the ballpark.

Rating: 8/10 – ripe for reassessment, The Terminal showcases an actor and a director working completely in synch, and providing their audience with a delightful slice of feelgood entertainment; richly detailed and with a clutch of stand-out moments, this is avowedly superior stuff.