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Review: The Terminal (2004)


Title: The Terminal (2004)

Genre: Comedy-drama

Director: Steven Spielberg

Stars: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Kumar Pallana

Bias: Having seen this film in middle school, I remembered it as being both entertaining and distinctly weird. I went into re-watching it looking for a level of “problematic weirdness” (e.g., rampant product placement) and was not disappointed.

Grade: B-

In a Nutshell: Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a tourist from the fictional Eastern European nation of Krakozhia on his way to visit New York City. But upon his arrival at JFK International (a massive set and occasional location footage stand in for the airport), his passport is marked unfit for clearance. This is because during Viktor’s flight, Krakozhia underwent a political coup; by the time he lands, the U.S. no longer recognizes Krakozhia’s statehood and Viktor is deemed, in airport security head Frank Dixon’s (Stanley Tucci) glib terms, a “citizen of nowhere.” Thus, Viktor is unable to either enter the U.S. or return home. Unsure of what to do with Viktor, Dixon tells him to remain in the terminal until things are “sorted out” (they won’t be).

The rest of the film essentially consists of hijinks. Viktor fashions a makeshift bed out of a pair of abandoned benches, teaches himself English, learns that he can collect quarters by returning stray luggage carts to their racks, and uses these earnings to eat at Burger King. Over the course of months, he wins over the affections of the community of airport workers. Ultimately, Viktor gets to leave the airport (upon his exit he is showered with gifts by the doting employees of the terminal’s many shops), visit New York City, and return to a now-peaceful Krakozhia.

The Critique: These hijinks are delivered with Spielbergian warmth and good pacing. The film is fun, and Hanks’ Viktor is sympathetic, etc. Yet, the film is weird and problematic on multiple levels. For one,

there is sooo much production placement. This is partly because the production team had to partner with a host of retailers to make its massive, 75,000 sq. ft. set look believably like an airport terminal. In effect, the film functions as a commercial for the activity of buying things in an airport.

One of my other gripes is that the film engages in the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth. Viktor is portrayed as an enterprising individual who, despite the odds, is able to attain something of the American dream within the microcosmic bounds of the terminal: He arrives penniless, because Krakozhia’s currency has become worthless, but is able to scrape by through ingenuity (returning luggage carts). Later, after seeking employment at several airport shops and being laughed away (presumably because of his accent, or something), Viktor stumbles into a job on a terminal construction site. This enables him to, for instance, buy a suit at Hugo Boss to impress his love interest Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Through narrative turning points, such as the acquisition of the suit (a status symbol) and a heroic deed (Viktor helps a fellow Slavic-speaking traveler evade the unjust consequences of a customs policy), he passes from being a source of amusement to commanding a level of respect within the airport.

Viktor does all this with little support and sometimes active opposition from the legal and bureaucratic systems surrounding him, as represented by Dixon and co. Meanwhile, Viktor is portrayed as “exceptional” in comparison to other immigrant characters. A Latino food service worker played by Diego Luna and an Indian janitor played by Kumar Pallana function as sidekicks who help move Viktor’s story forward. Ultimately, Pallana’s janitor is spectacularly expendable—he stands in front a taxiing plane on a runway and gets himself arrested, and presumably deported, to help Viktor achieve his dream of visiting New York City.

Worth noting: The Terminal is loosely based on the life of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who, as the result of a bureaucratic fluke, lived in France’s Charles de Gaulle Airport from 1988 to 2006. His story has inspired other films, including Tromés du ciel (1993), Waiting for Godot at de Gaulle (2000), Here to Nowhere (2001) and Sir Alfred of Charles de Gaulle Airport (2001).

Shout-outs: A+ eye candy. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński makes fantastic use of set designer Alex McDowell’s constructed terminal.

To Rent: The Terminal is available to rent on Amazon Video.

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