Steven Spielberg must really love airports and nearly-unbelievable true stories. His last film, Catch Me If You Can, a wonderful film inspired by the true story of check forger/impostor/master of disguise Frank Abagnale was set often in various airports. His new film, The Terminal, is set in only one airport, though, JFK International in New York City. And, although like Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg takes many dramatic liberties with the true story, it is a rather entertaining movie, although smaller in scale and greatness, compared to Catch Me If You Can.
The movie starts out at JFK, with Viktor Navorski (Hanks) bearing only a few bags and a mysterious can of Planters peanuts, trying to get into New York City on a pilgramage of some sort. But while he was in the air, war broke out in his homeland of Krachozia. I don't know if that's spelled right, but I doubt it's a real country anyway. Anyway, because of the status of his "country" he is not allowed into the country, or even back home. So, forced he is to stay in the terminal until the situation in his homeland is straightened out. So there he stays, a situation that becomes a thorn in the side of Frank Dixon (Tucci) an airport administrator, who wants him gone, while still keeping him there at the same time. Yeah, he's an odd one. And a lovely flight attendant Amelia (Zeta-Jones) catches Navorski's fancy as well.
I don't know why Spielberg has to toy with these true stories so much. Catch Me If You Can did turn out to be a magnificent movie, but it was over-dramatized in comparison to the true story, told by Abagnale in his book of the same name. I don't know much about the true story inspired by The Terminal, but what I know of it is far different than the movie turned out to be. The movie is inspired by the true story of Merhan Nasseri, a refugee from Iran who was forced to stay at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris in 1988 after his passport and U.N. refugee papers were stolen. Apparently, he stayed there for years, just lost in the shuffle, and when he was cleared to leave, he decided to stay in the terminal, and he still lives there.
But instead of using internal conflict with Hanks character, just being stuck in a terminal, we have this bully figure in Tucci's Dixon character, and Zeta-Jones' "love interest" character. It just seems too Hollywood, and I wish they would've played it a little more straight rather than adding conflicts that are not only contrived, but don't totally make a whole lot of sense. Dixon wants him gone, but doesn't want to "lie" which doesn't seem to fit his character. Amelia sort-of falls for him, but pushes him away because she thinks she's "bad" for him. Tucci plays his character well, even though it was written poorly, and Zeta-Jones character was written nicely, and accurately (she's that "I don't know what I want" type of woman) but wasn't portrayed that well. Tucci always plays wonderful bad-guy types (See: Big Trouble, The Core) and he is on-point here as well, giving a nice performance. But Zeta-Jones just seemed like she didn't know how her character very well. She is a fabulous actress, with great range, but she seems hollow and artificial here. She does well in some scenes, especially her scene with Tucci, but overall, it's just not her best work.
But Tom Hanks is the Cal Ripkin of the movie business. He is consistently at the top of his game, and he delivers another wonderful performance here. He is simply perfect as Viktor Navorski, with the spot-on Eastern-bloc accent, broken English and skittish behavior. He has a range unheralded in Hollywood, and it seems that there is not a one character this great actor can't play. With this performance, and his hilarious performance in The Ladykillers, and his upcoming voice work in The Polar Express, this looks like quite the year for Mr. Hanks.
The script was written by Sacha Gervasi and Catch Me If You Can scribe Jeff Nathanson, with a story credit given to Gervasi and one of my favorite writer/directors, Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show, S1m0ne). I would really like to find a copy of Niccol's draft, because I just love his work, and by him getting merely a story credit, it's apparent that there were many changes made to his draft. But Nathanson and Gervasi did craft a fairly nice script, but the conflicts just didn't work for me. We don't get a lot of character development here either, especially with the Navorski character. All we really know about him, for most of the movie, is that he wants to go to New York to the Raddison Hotel, and that he is a man of extreme patience. A little more development and a different take on the conflicts would've helped this script immensely.
But Mr. Spielberg is at the top of his form at the helm here. He creates a wonderful world here in this terminal, which was completely constructed from scratch, and using some marvelous cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, who has worked with Spielberg in his last six films. Spielberg is simply a master of his craft, surrounding himself with the best people in the biz. He is probably the only director in Hollywood that can secure a huge audience just by his name appearing on the poster, with a possible exception to Quentin Tarantino. Spielberg's best work may be behind him (Schindler's List, Jurrasic Park, Saving Private Ryan) but he consistently delivers thouroughly entertaining films, and he probably will for many years to come.
The Terminal is a movie about principles and patience, and the lengths some go to stick to them. It's somewhat more flawed than you'd expect from Speilberg, mainly because of the script. But with Hanks magnificent performance and Spielberg at the helm, you'll get your money's worth.