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The Terminal

(2004) ** 1/2 Pg-13
125 min. DreamWorks. Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Diego Luna, Chi McBride.

In his fluffily entertaining but sketch-thin comedy-of-hazing The Terminal, Steven Spielberg accounts for America in binary code: America is oppression and freedom, exclusion and inclusion, stamps and forms as well as jazz and, well, Steven Spielberg movies. The "irrepressible" spirit of immigrants and the working class contrasts the petty acrimony of beaten-down bureaucrats and ungrateful rich people. In today's global political scene, Spielberg wants the world to answer a spankin' "yes" to The Terminal's rhetorical question: our government may be ruled by bastards, but isn't America—aren't true Americans—great?

Well, fine, but The Terminal isn't a terribly great movie. Spielberg takes an interesting idea—a man temporarily without a country must live in the limbo of an airport terminal—and handles it predictably, with old-fashioned gusto and a late-breaking impulse for narrative tidiness. Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European traveller (from the fictional country of Krakozhia) named Viktor Navorski; when Krakozhia endures a violent coup, the country ceases to be recognized by America. Until the US government sees its way to reconcile with Viktor's home soil, he can't set foot in America and he can't go home.

Part of the joke (on the part of Spielberg and screenwriters Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson) is that Hanks's utterly guileless innocent savant is, like Forrest Gump, more industrious, creative, and resourceful than the next guy, and yet Lady Liberty doesn't even want him setting foot on her turf. Hanks, in full bore charming mode (complete with game physical comedy and halting, guttural, damn-lovable accent), figures out how to survive the terminal, make a temporary home of Gate 67, play Cyrano for two airport employees, get a construction job by putting craft in the midst of mediocrity, romance a neurotic flight attendant who feels the need to flee commitment, and generally become a folk hero to the multiculti little people of the terminal (African Americans Chi McBride and Zoe Saldana, Mexican Diego Luna, and Indian Kumar Pallana, on loan from the complete works of Wes Anderson). The episodic nature of the story suggests a blown-up sitcom, perhaps Wings: The Movie.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the flight attendant, Amelia, and her story is sweet but sanded down to too-smooth an edge. Stanely Tucci, as the Capra-esque villain of the piece (the provisionally-promoted, self-protective Acting Field Commissioner of the resident Department of Homeland Security) lacks motivational consistency, the better to serve the needs of the plot: is he strictly by-the-book, or does he want simply to find ways to transform each problem to "not my problem"? The answers, my friend, are blowin' in the wind.

When Tucci's right-hand-man (Barry Shabaka Henley) escorts Hanks into the terminal, he tells him, "There's only one thing you can do here, Mr. Navorski: shop." Accordingly, The Terminal's elaborate set (credit where it's due to production designer Alex McDowell) crams in even more product placements than Minority Report, all "excused" by Spielberg's visual irony (Hanks reading Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go! in a Borders bookstore). Spielberg also ventures tentatively into satire when Tucci's character offers to let mostly-harmless Viktor disappear into New York on a technicality, if he'll only admit to being afraid of Krakozhia; authority thrives on fear or the agreement to simulate it.

Spielberg sets the crowd-pleasing The Terminal in an allegorical fantasy land, so there's no point quibbling over the lack of realism (I trust an explanation of Viktor's laundry arrangements lies dutifully on Michael Kahn's cutting room floor). Less forgivable are the unconsidered, preview-ready lines (Zeta-Jones explaining her yen for Viktor by telling a man she doesn't know "That's something a guy like you could never understand") and the sentimental objectives and conveniences on which the whole plot hinges. Though Hanks puts on a classical clown act, character is illusion in The Terminal, and as Viktor puts it, "We all wait."

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