In Steven Spielberg’s latest, The Terminal, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a resident of a make-believe East European country, Krakhosia, travels to New York City on a sentimental mission but gets stranded at Kennedy Airport when a revolution back home deprives him of citizenship and passport. Until the revolutionaries organize a new government and receive recognition from the United States, Viktor is a man without a country. The airport’s bureaucrat in charge of admissions and security, the field commissioner (Stanley Tucci), instead of arranging a provisional diplomatic solution, thrusts food coupons and a pager into Navorski’s hands and, warning him not to venture outside the terminal, turns him loose in the International Transit Lounge.

Let’s stop right there. No one can doubt that bureaucracy can be heartless. But why would an ambitious, intelligent, and efficient bureaucrat, as the field commissioner is shown to be in at least two scenes, make trouble for himself by turning a harmless tourist into a vagabond within the bureaucrat’s jurisdiction? We all know what would happen in reality. Local TV news programs and, soon thereafter, 60 Minutes, would glom onto poor, sweet Viktor and his plight, making him a national hero and crucifying the heartless official who victimized him.

But, in The Terminal, the press never gets wind of Viktor’s situation, and there’s still more tomfoolery from the scriptwriters. For, by the middle of the movie, Field Commissioner Tucci has alienated his entire staff, lost the respect of his predecessor, and committed infractions of rules (perhaps of laws) in full view of his security squad, all of whom would love to topple him. Yet no one leaks to the press. Are we watching a movie set in America or in, say, the Czechoslovakia of 1950? Has the Patriot Act so unnerved Spielberg that he thinks we’re living in a police state where New Yorkers are afraid to be the insubordinate, whistle-blowing, pains-in-the-neck that they have always been?

Granted, Spielberg and his scriptwriters may be merely asking us to buy the setup so that we can then enjoy the rest of the film. But the nonsense proliferates as the story progresses and gets in the way of sheer pleasure. Virtually nothing makes sense. When the field commissioner, in a rare moment of sanity, finally urges Viktor to seek political asylum, he finds himself unable to persuade the Krakhozian because of the language barrier, yet he never thinks of bringing in a translator though Viktor’s problem has been on his plate for weeks. (At an earlier interview, the commissioner mentions a translator is being sought. Many weeks later, no translator can be found in New York City, the most multilingual city in the world.) Other idiocies: a food handler asks Viktor to be a romantic liaison between him and a pretty INS agent, even though Viktor, at that time, isn’t on good terms with the woman. Navorski loses his food coupons and the commissioner never replaces them. Why? The hungry Viktor scrambles to make small change by retrieving luggage carts. The commissioner stops this. Why? Does he want a man to starve to death on his watch? Actually, he’s trying to get Viktor to walk out of the terminal (so that he will cease being the airport’s problem) and even orders the guards to relax their vigilance so that Navorski can sneak out, but this is an infraction that could cost the commissioner his job, and we have been shown that this official is a punctilious man.

But, enough. These objections would be mere rationalistic nagging in a movie that had created its own stylistic reality and internal logic, the way great farces such as The Importance of Being Earnest or great cartoons (the Road Runner series) do. But that brings us to The Terminal’s fundamental artistic problem.

Like the skinny man lurking within the fat man’s body, a quietly fact-checking realist has long enjoyed harbor inside Steven Spielberg, this director who made his reputation with spills and chills and visits from another planet. It has been a fruitful collaboration since Spielberg must have known from the start that a fantasist can’t ensnare an audience unless his stories contain at least a strain of realism. This doesn’t apply to the Indiana Jones series, which is a tribute to Saturday morning serials, but it certainly applies to E.T. (the realistic portrayal of suburban kids certifying the sci-fi), Duel and The Sugarland Express (the very human protagonists caught up in highway derring-do), and Jaws (the plausible fear and bravery of the seagoing heroes tested by the shark’s fantastic feeding habits). And when Spielberg turned to material grounded in specific historical periods, The Color Purple, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List, the inner realist really came into his own. Finally, with the shamefully underrated Catch Me If You Can (in my opinion the best American movie of 2002), Spielberg achieved a lyrical, swift, Mozartian realism that made this tale of a wunderkind criminal and the plodding, honorable cop who chases him both a penetrating psychological study and a fast-moving action caper.

his same light-footed but detailed realism is on display in The Terminal. Visually and kinetically, Catch Me and the new movie are siblings. Art designer Jeannine Oppenwall’s recreation of the terminal is as spiffy as Catch Me’s recreation of 1950s hotels and high life. Januz Kaminski’s photography is once again both winged and subdued: it captures the action from every appropriate angle yet also employs a conservative palette just varied enough to hold our attention until a shift in the story demands brighter colors, which the photographer then supplies. And Spielberg and Kaminski convey a canny awareness of a terminal’s many levels and geometric variations. Michael Kahn’s editing is razor sharp and, once again, the music of John Williams keeps nipping the story along.

But it is one thing to employ a gentle realism on a tight, humanely logical script such as the one Jeff Nathanson supplied for Catch Me, and quite another to use it on the claptrap that the very same Nathanson has written in collaboration with Sacha Gervasi. The more sinewy and clear-eyed Spielberg’s direction is, the more lucidly we see the sloppiness and opportunism in the storytelling, the more clearly we hear the clichés in the dialogue.

Perhaps Tom Hanks’s much-acclaimed performance redeems the movie? Hanks is one of the best actors around but, for me at least, his performance aggravates the phoniness of the screenplay. We all know that anybody bumbling through a foreign country and language may seem pathetic, quaint, schlemiel-like, but perhaps also quite cute in his or her helplessness. But it’s the job of any actor playing such a person to resist coasting on this pathetic surface and discover the real human being hobbled by circumstance. Hanks doesn’t resist; he capitalizes. Except for one excellent scene in which Navorski rescues a hysterical Russian traveler, Viktor doesn’t exist apart from his cute accent, the quizzical East European inflections at the end of sentences, the adorably hesitant movements, the coyly pathetic mugging. This Viktor Navorski isn’t really a character at all; he’s a mascot. Compare this performance with Hanks as Forrest Gump, another lovable victim, and you’ll see the difference between building a fictional being with memorable physicality and burying a character under characteristics.

Yet, the image of the Foreigner as Mascot is precisely what will sell this film and make it a substantial hit. For no citizenry in history has ever loved itself as idealistically as Americans do, and so much of that self-love depends on our vision of ourselves as a beacon to the economically depressed and politically benighted. It is precisely this self-image that is taking a beating nowadays. How dare the Iraqis tell us to go away! Why, they should be running with gratitude into our arms! Viktor does! Or at least he tries to until that villainous field commissioner...

And now, I think, we can begin to understand why Spielberg and Jeff Na­than­son, normally such adept storytellers, have permitted, nay, packed so much phoniness into their script. The specious antagonism between Viktor and the field commissioner is such a sure-fire setup-lovable foreigner kept out of America by cold-hearted paper-pusher-that Spielberg has felt free to dispense with believability throughout the film, especially at its conclusion, when the terminal’s entire staff rallies to Viktor’s cause. (At the cost of losing their jobs? Don’t be silly. It’s the mark of a sentimental story that lovable characters make big sacrificial risks without ever sacrificing anything.) We are left with the unclouded memory of America loving Viktor and Viktor striving to be worthy of its love. And no one, except that one nasty bureaucrat, tells anybody to go away.

So, The Terminal, whatever its flaws, will succeed at the box office because it makes a statement that many Americans, made queasy by our current relationship with the rest of the world, want to hear affirmed: America is still loved by some.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2004-07-16 issue: View Contents
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