There’s a queasy uncertainty to Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, a thematic discord apparent in the film’s consistently restless mise-en-scène. If Catch Me If You Can was the director’s acknowledgement of his sparring emotional selves (adolescent vs. adult), The Terminal ably represents his warring mindset in motion. Spielberg—racing Janusz Kamiński’s camera around his huge airport set, giddy as a schoolboy (pace Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)—milks the teat of human kindness through Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) who, due to a war in his home country of Krakozhia, is trapped indefinitely in JFK airport’s international terminal.
An early scene shows off Spielberg and Hanks’s cinematic prowess as Viktor runs from television set to television set, trying to catch a news report about his homeland situation. As Hanks ratchets up Viktor’s apprehension, Spielberg sketches in the dour oppressiveness of the terminal, a stunning construction by production designer Alex McDowell that is filled to the brim with monitors and product services. Spielberg is particularly adept at ironic juxtapositions and he seems quite aware of the terminal’s inherent contradiction in having electronic modes of advertising so close to the stores that satiate resulting consumer need. This idea reaches its sublime apex when Viktor applies for a job at one of the terminal’s many businesses and anxiously awaits callback at a nearby pay phone. Spielberg brilliantly conflates immigrant experience with a subtle comment on an exclusionary American economy, and one wishes such perceptive moments were more forthcoming throughout this frustratingly episodic film.
Sad that the Spielberg of The Terminal seems content to engage in sequences of crude slapstick that, unlike Harpo’s numerous pratfalls in The Color Purple, are less a product of soulful insight then they are the mischievous diversions of a crowd-pleaser. These sections of The Terminal extend directly from the character of Gupta (Kumar Pallana), an airport janitor who enjoys watching people slip and fall on his freshly scrubbed floors. There’s a sense of proletariat retribution to Gupta’s smirks, though his pleasure never develops into anything profound, not even when he faces down a behemoth United Airlines jet in a sequence that strives beyond the breaking point to achieve Chaplinesque emotional triumph. His one moment of clarity and dimension comes when he relates an anecdote about Viktor to a group of airport workers and presents them with a photocopy of Viktor’s handprint. The importance of both storytelling and personal history is apparent in Gupta’s every awe-inflected syllable; it’s one of The Terminal’s few instances of genuine connection that is Spielberg’s emotional stock in trade.
Gupta is also a participant in The Terminal’s most confused scene, a hilarious yet troubling dinner date between Viktor and flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Here the Indian Gupta, along with Hispanic and Black employees Enrique (Diego Luna) and Joe (Chi McBride), enact a bizarre passion play of servitude, lighting candles, serving dinner, and juggling plates in order to help Viktor woo Amelia. Fascinating from a conceptual level, the usually race-conscious Spielberg seems unsure as to the scene’s focus. Offensive background slapstick collides with Amelia’s heartfelt speech about age, and even with Hanks playing Eastern European there’s a sense of that white savior colonialist impulse that tarnished Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s at points likes this that one wishes Spielberg had stuck closer to the film’s real-world inspiration (the terminal-bound Iranian refugee Merhan Nasseri), which might have gone a way toward referencing and critiquing our country’s current visitation/immigration policies that caused such embarrassing hassle for, among others, Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi.
The Terminal, then, is a film of inconsistent parts, but as with all of Spielberg’s work there are more than a few diamonds in the rough. Of particular note is Stanley Tucci’s performance as Frank Dixon, a stock authority figure fascist in Capra mode who never becomes the cartoon his character conception threatens. A slave to the terminal’s voyeuristic technology, Dixon is almost always seen from God’s-eye vantage points, and Spielberg finds his wittiest and most insightful camera placement in a moment where Dixon and his law-enforcement entourage stand ominously above a Borders bookstore sign.
The film is also blessed with my favorite Spielberg almost-ending. The director wraps up Viktor’s journey in fairly obvious fashion with soaring John Williams music and a line (“I’m going home”) that seems too self-reflexive. But the scene right before is one of his greatest, an encounter in a bar between Viktor and jazz saxophonist Benny Golson that would have made a superb end credit sequence and reinforced The Terminal’s main theme—the idea that Viktor is more than willing to wait to honorably achieve his spirited goals (not for nothing is Viktor’s terminal stay a gestation-appropriate nine months.) The Zen moment of calm that occurs as Viktor absorbs Golson’s melodies acts as counterbalance to The Terminal’s prior restlessness and provides a thought-provoking musical respite that, unfortunately—as with much of Spielberg’s impatient fantasia—is over and done with all too quickly.