The Terminal
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

It happened by mistake. In the normal course of events, I would not have gone to see a lyrical comedy by Steven Spielberg. But I was out of the country and so must have missed the media-saturation PR campaign without which a maitre's new release is unthinkable. All I had to go by was "Spielberg/Hanks — The Terminal". Having spent an inordinate amount of time in the latter, I said, What the hell. The result: a two-hour-long mistake.

Well, I over-dramatize. There's plenty of hilarious gags in the film - what's a big-budget Hollywood comedy without gags? Especially in the beginning, and mostly at the foreigners' expense. But Spielberg is no Zucker Brother, and this is not The Terminal! In fact, the title itself is misleading. It should have been The Love Terminal, The Freedom Terminal…I suspect most wags will use The Terminal on the Hudson, though God forbid that Spielberg be suspect of following in Paul Mazursky's — or anybody's — footsteps. The stark The Terminal evokes a Kafka universe. And so does the opening of the film.

Amid smiles and excitement, an affable foreigner named Victor Navorski (Tom Hanks, incapable of being not nice, even when playing a killer-for-hire in Road to Perdition) arrives at JFK. Suddenly his passport and his visa are pronounced invalid. Turns out that while Mr. Navorski was aloft, his home country, the fictional Krakozia, had gone through a military coup. (Numerous CNN screens all over the airport keep running Wag-the-Dog-like footage of tanks on country roads and grannies in babushkas plodding through fields.) The US have not recognized the junta in power, and so Mr. Navorski is stuck: he can't enter the US and he has no country to go back to. The Federal bureaucracy is at a loss. I am prepared to suggest the character's name should be Victor N.

The bureaucracy is personified by a Mr. Dixon, played by Stanley Tucci — an utterly thankless part that the star of Murder One and The Big Night could play in his sleep. Dixon is about to take over the top job in the Department of Homeland Security, and the unresolved case on his turf is the last thing he needs. Dixon tries hard to lure Navorski to break the law and leave the no-man's-land of the international lounge, to be promptly arrested by FBI or NYPD and thrown in the dreaded immigration jail. But Navorski, partly by instinct, partly because he doesn't understand enough English, stubbornly resists Dixon's ruses and stays a huge thorn in Dixon's side. Moreover, though deprived of language or money or a bed, Navorski does not merely survive; with as much panache as Hanks in Cast Away, he treats the abandoned Gate 67 as a prairie homestead, turning it into a livable space. Turned down for every job ("Social Security?" "Daytime phone?"), he practically creates a job by himself; he becomes a mascot of the multicultural blue-collar population of the terminal (used to be called "the masses"), and even has the ever-gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones, a stewardess with a heart of gold, fall in love with him. To sum it up, Navorski's sheer enthusiasm and resourcefulness make him the real American — not the evil bureaucrat behind the glass wall. I was eagerly expecting Mr. Navorski to run for Congress from the specially formed Terminal District (in Hollywood, things like citizenship and party nominations are generally resolved within 24 hours).

But that would be another director's universe. For example, Homeland Security is a legitimate target, as anyone who has stood with his shoes in his hands at an airport security checkpoint can testify (by now a good percentage of population, but perhaps that does not include Mr. Spielberg). But that would require putting some teeth into the satire, while Spielberg composes an old-time liberal Valentine to America — but it is drenched in schmaltz and hypocrisy. In order to ram home their Hollywood-spun populist truths, Spielberg and his screenwriters take some dubious shortcuts. For example, Navorski gains his popularity with his fellow workers after he deliberately mistranslates a passenger trying to take some medication out of the country. (The whole episode is quite convoluted, to say nothing of Hanks speaking balderdash to a man who responds in pure Russian, but Spielberg and his ilk would rather admire foreigners than know them.) Obviously, it is OK to break a stupid law, as long as the masses are happy. Great lesson. Mob law is just where we want to go as a country; let's just wait for China and Pakistan to come along.

But even Spielberg's hallowed populism is skin-deep. The three workers who help Navorski survive are a modern-day liberal equivalent of a WWII bomber crew: a Hispanic (or is it a Latino?), an African-American, and an Indian (could have been a Chinese in Draft No.89, but Kumar Pallana had been wooing them ever since Bottle Rocket). All of them struggle against the evil WASP behind the glass wall upstairs - but in Spielberg's America they help the evil WASP "discover his humanity" (some call it "re-educating"). Do I see Rev. Jesse and La Raza applauding?

Maybe not, because the little non-white people in the movie serve one purpose only: helping the Big White Man out of the jam. As far as multiculturalism is concerned, Mr. Spielberg has been in a deep Rip-van-Winklean sleep. If he and his screenwriters ever had to deal with a government bureaucracy for housing or public assistance or law enforcement, they would see non-whites in executive positions all over the place. Not in Hollywood, apparently — and that's the nub. Healer, heal thyself.

I will not even dwell on the shameless product placement that goes beyond anything I have seen in a long time. United Airlines, Burger King, Sbarro, Borders, Hugo Boss, Ramada Inn — for two hours we are bombarded nonstop with brand names. Sure enough, right outside the theater, you can espy Tom Hanks in the Hugo Boss store window… if this is the price of populism, give me elitism.

The film is not without its small pleasures, including Tom Hanks' impeccable comic timing, which we haven't seen since Bosom Buddies. But these little gems drown in the tidal wave of nauseating trickle that Spielberg unleashes upon the audience towards the end. I have no doubt that Mr. Spielberg loves America, but living in his America is not good for your sugar level.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: DreamWorks Pictures
Movie Web site: The Terminal



Photos: © 2004 DreamWorks Pictures. All rights reserved.