Leave it to Steven Spielberg to romanticize a sprawling stretch of steel, asphalt, and endless bureaucratic tape and somehow make it work.

Known for lending his saccharine-filled vision to celluloid, from 1989’s underrated Always to more recent forays like 2001’s schizophrenic A.I., the director finds himself in familiar territory with his newest flick, The Terminal. In Spielberg’s delicate hands, J.F.K. becomes a playground of sympathetic characters and sentimental moments, where the little people are more human than the higher-ups in charge and comic relief abounds even in the cold impersonality of an airport where nothing is constant but the shuttling of people from destination to destination.

Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a traveler stranded at J.F.K. after a coup in his native homeland of Krakozia – not to mention a string of highly unlikely and incomprehensible events – leaves him a man without a country and without the proper papers to step foot onto U.S. soil. Viktor is a crack in the system, biding his time in the terminal which, for the next nine months, becomes his home. Stanley Tucci, as the anal-retentive, no-nonsense Frank Dixon, is the prerequisite bad guy, who occasionally shakes things up for Viktor when things seem to be going just right. Toss in a little romantic distraction by way of the gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones as an emotionally confused, Napoleon-spouting flight attendant, and what we have is a recipe for a light-hearted, star-driven popcorn flick.

The Terminal’s premise is as likely as cloned dinosaurs roaming a modern-day theme park, but obviously, outlandish ideas are nothing new to Spielberg, whose canon of film includes everything from Hook to Jurassic Park. If The Terminal could be measured against all things on the Spielbergian spectrum of film, it would land above Catch Me If You Can (another flick which pokes fun at the foibles of airport security) and somewhere squarely below Raiders of the Lost Ark – it makes for a warm-hearted middle-of-the road viewing experience. No one need be offended here – except maybe airport security.

It needn’t be really said that Hanks puts in a good performance (because he does), that Spielberg spins yet another unique cinematic experience (because that’s assumed), or that there’s a happy ending awaiting the viewer from the director who believes in service with a smile (because there is).

If anything, the only fault lies in the end of this feel-good, everyman flick. It seems as though lately, Spielberg suffers from Director’s Cut Sydrome (DCS for the uninitiated): the talented director doesn’t know when to stop a film. A.I., the two-headed Kubrick/Spielberg creature that it was, stuttered through at least two different possible endings and though The Terminal’s finale isn’t that bad, the film doesn’t stop where it could and should. Maybe it’s just me, but Spielberg doesn’t need to spell out everything for us viewers. Some things are simply better left unsaid.

As with many of his films, The Terminal perpetuates Spielberg’s Life is Beautiful mantra, persisting on imparting to audiences an old adage: without darkness, there’s no light. In the most dire of circumstances (and airport terminals), there’s hope, if not stolen moments of comedy and happiness. All you have to do is look.

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