From time to time, we all find ourselves waiting for something or someone in an airport terminal. Waiting for
family and loved ones to arrive, waiting for that connecting flight, waiting for the final boarding call before our
friends depart. In these large, uncomfortable waiting rooms, we spend countless hours of our lives, occasionally
getting stranded due to inclement weather or technical delays. But nothing quite as significant as the time Viktor
Navorski spends waiting at John F. Kennedy Airport in Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal." In the film, Tom Hanks
portrays Navorski, an Eastern European who gets stranded in the international arrivals lounge when his visa and passport
become invalidated due to political distress in the fictitious country of Krakozhia. In a foreign airport, he must patiently wait and
survive. Marking the reunion of Spielberg and Hanks, previous collaborators on the
terminal friendly "Catch Me if You Can," this outing showcases a fine performance from Hanks but one that gets lost
while attempting to transcend a higher purpose.
Viktor Navorski is traveling to New York City on a mission of personal significance. However, en route to the
United States, his homeland known as Krakozhia is overtaken by a military coup. This bizarre twist of events
has two consequences: 1) The globally recognized state of Krakozhia no longer exists and 2) Anyone traveling
with a Krakozhian passport and/or visa is traveling with invalid credentials. In the blink of an eye, Navorski
becomes a man without a country. Upon his arrival, his travel documents are seized and an interrogation ensues,
led by Frank Dixon, head of customs and immigrations. Dixon, a by the book type of officer, struggles to
communicate the complexities of the situation with Navorski, who barely speaks an ounce of English. In
conclusion, Dixon has no choice but to quarantine Navorski to the international arrivals lounge until some kind
of resolution can be found.
Unable to set foot on American soil, Navorski tries to make the best of a bad situation. Much to the chagrin of Dixon and
his associates, who would just as soon pass him off to another jurisdiction, Navorski takes advantage of his newfound
digs. He finds a way to earn money, he befriends a disheartened stewardess, he mediates between two lovebirds, and he
becomes a hero to those working in the terminal when he defuses a hostile situation involving a Russian man and illegal
medication. He even befriends a disgruntled janitor named Gupta and helps rebuild a part of the airport with construction
expertise. Although the months of awkward life in the terminal have been a pleasant diversion, Navorski is relieved to
learn that Krakozhia has indeed returned to a peaceful state. And despite the newfound freedom to return home, the
question is whether he will have the freedom to fulfill his father's dying wishes.
"The Terminal" is a character study based on the real life of Merhan Nasseri, an Iranian refugee, who ended up detained
at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in 1998 when his passport and refugee certificate were stolen. Unlike Viktor Navorski,
who spends only a few months in the international arrivals terminal, Nasseri spent 16 years living in Terminal One! But
why? And what could be so appealing or tolerable about terminal life for one to consent to living in such conditions for
so long? As the film rolls on, it quickly becomes obvious. Unaccustomed to the American way of life, Navorski shows us
that with all its diversity, class structure, opportunity, and friendships, the terminal represents a small microcosm of
the American dream.
In the modern age of digital imagery and virtual sets, it was very pleasing and awe inspiring to learn that
the international arrivals lounge was built from scratch, incorporating working versions of 35 retail and fast
food chains such as Starbucks, Verizon Wireless, Borders, Hugo Boss, etc. as well as the company's own
employees running them. Remarkably, it also marked the first time that escalators were built exclusively for
a movie set (and this film built 4). And then there's the digital arrivals board, known as the Wayfinding
System, which was custom designed by the Dutch firm Bureau Mijksenaar to match that of the newly adopted one
in JFK and many facilities in Europe. These details are what set design is all about and I tip my hat to
production designer Alex McDowell and his crew for going the extra mile to authenticate and create such a
magnificent work of art.
Many actors, after achieving Academy Award fame, drop off the face of the earth. They are lured in by the big
dollars only to see their films flop at the box office and their careers plummet into oblivion. But Tom Hanks
isn't one of them. An acting genius willing to take risks and sharpen his craft, Hanks has continued to get
better and better with age, challenging himself with difficult roles and refusing to be typecast. His latest
incarnations as Carl Hanratty in "Catch Me if You Can" and Professor G.H. Dorr in "The Ladykillers" are prime
examples, along with this latest twist as Viktor Navorski, a character who says so little but conveys so much.
Using a Russian accent but speaking Bulgarian, Hanks draws attention to the story's dialogue and garners laughs
with subtlety and charm, effortlessly. Asked if he is afraid of returning to his own country, Navorski replies:
"I am afraid for...ghosts." And it is this sophisticated effort that makes the film highly engaging, watching Hanks
master the art of nuance.
Yet rather than hone in on Hanks' incredibly subdued performance, the film stumbles in its attempt to harness the
big payoff. Known for extracting grandiose emotions and over-the-top dramatics, Steven Spielberg loses sight of
what makes Navorski so appealing, so genuinely lovable. It's that connection the character has with the audience
through association and commonality that gets lost in a cheesy higher purpose. Here, Navorski goes from a
relatable human being into some kind of super hero, orchestrating a compromise with an unruly Russian passenger,
building a huge fountain from scratch as a token of love for Amelia, and coordinating the romance between a food
services worker and a U.S. Customs official which leads to a corny wedding. In fact, airport workers, thrilled by
his heroics, find time to display silly photocopies of? his hand! It's that type of behavior we'd expect to see
from a tale of Superman, but not Viktor Navorski. And while these instances have tenderness about them, the outcomes are so
contrived and tedious that they distract us from what we know to be true.
"The Terminal" is a bittersweet immigrant tale about a good-natured foreign traveler who gets mired in red
tape and must patiently wait for a resolution outside of his homeland. Navorski's choice to play by the rules and
adapt to his new environment is leisure entertainment, particularly as he thwarts the system and stumbles into
friendship. And it's enhanced by a critically discerning performance by Tom Hanks. But somewhere in between,
Steven Spielberg sacrifices simplicity for schmaltz, turning a beautifully inartificial character study into
an over-the-top human triumph. Navorski is no Forrest Gump, mind you. But he deserves better. At least,
more satisfaction than your typical in-flight meal.