With The Terminal, Steven Spielberg gives us an amiable if rather toothless fable about a man without a country. Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a citizen of the nation of Krakhozia, has come to New York on unspecified business. As luck would have it, Krakhozia has fallen to revolutionaries, so Viktor’s passport is rendered invalid, and he’s stuck at JFK International Airport until … well, nobody really knows. The problem with The Terminal is that it’s also about a man without an identity.
Viktor is based, incredibly enough, on a real-life case — an Iranian named Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who got waylaid at De Gaulle Airport in 1988 and has resided there ever since. Nasseri’s story sounds more interesting — and more spikily human — than what Spielberg and his writers (Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson) have gleaned from the basic premise. Viktor falls into a routine at the well-appointed airport, a shining oasis with its own restaurants and stores; he figures out how to earn pocket change from collecting luggage carts, and he subsists on crackers and sleeps on rows of cushioned terminal seats. Viktor is a can-do kind of guy — the sort of ingenious immigrant that forged America itself, Spielberg is saying.
What passes for conflict here comes from the airport’s security officer (Stanley Tucci), a harried and impersonal drone who just wants Viktor off his radar. It’s a contest between two kinds of single-mindedness — the optimistic old-country kind and the jaded urban kind. Viktor won’t budge, even when given a chance to leave illegally. You sense he’s dealt with this kind of bureaucrat many times in Krakhozia. After a career of films spanning continents and centuries, Spielberg narrows the struggle of the human condition down to one building and one man. The Terminal is Spielberg consciously downsizing. But one can’t help thinking that he did this sort of minimalism better, and with much more verve, in early thrillers like Duel and the last hour of Jaws.
Tom Hanks keeps his end of the bargain. He’s practically the whole show, as he was in Cast Away (which this movie resembles in its theme of a marooned man making the best of a bad situation), and he works up a satisfyingly twisty accent that loosens up a bit as the movie goes on and Viktor learns more English. (All told, he’s stuck at the airport for nine months — are we supposed to read a birth metaphor into that?) Hanks is now the all-American go-to guy (he rose to the position after Harrison Ford seemed to disregard it), and his performance as a foreigner is full of comic bits of incomprehension giving way to a native shrewdness. But after spending over two hours with Viktor, we’ve learned almost nothing about him except the contents of his mysterious can of Planters peanuts (and the heart-tugging backstory behind it). We leave with clearer impressions of the people Viktor meets, such as a lovestruck cafeteria worker (Diego Luna) or a floor-mopping Indian refugee (Kumar Pallana, veteran of three Wes Anderson films).
Spielberg tries to inject a love story between Viktor and a romantically confused flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones), but the subplot feels strained and groundless, leaving Zeta-Jones with virtually nothing to play. Eventually, The Terminal swells up to full Capra idolatry, surrounding Viktor with his new friends in shots that make It’s a Wonderful Life look like a chilly art-house film. Spielberg has set himself the challenge of one location and a near-plotless structure, and the movie is certainly fluidly directed — he keeps it going almost as an exercise, the way Hitchcock took on the technical obstacles of Rope. But in the end, you’re not quite sure why, other than the chance to play on what’s been advertised as the biggest set in movie history, Spielberg has picked this story to tell. There’s very little of him in it except the part of himself that can’t resist schmaltz.