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The Terminal

Once upon a time, in a far away land called New York, a charming little story unfolded about a man without a country who wanted to visit America. In the real world, the story wasn't so charming, as it involved political upheaval in his homeland, and mass slaughters always take the bloom off of cute fables. Then bureaucrats have to get involved in this sort of thing, and they're not so much evil as just annoying. That, too, makes it hard to keep things light.

So Steven Spielberg, a director that once knew how to gloss over such things but has now become a serious important director, can't quite make The Terminal work. Seriously, twenty years ago when he cared more about entertaining the crowd than teaching them a lesson, this movie would have glowed.

But twenty years ago, Spielberg might not have been able to have Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones. They were around, but nobody lined up to see them.

Thankfully for The Terminal, people line up to see them now, and they work hard to redeem some grim direction and quite honestly sloppy nonsensical story editing.

At its heart, the film has an interesting story, and it's loosely based in a real-life event. Viktor Navorski (Hanks) arrives at LaGuardia Airport from the fictional country of Krakozia, only to find his passport unacceptable. It seems that while he was in the air, his country suffered a bloody government coup, and to the United States, Krakozia may now be history. Stuck as a man without a country, Hanks cannot return home, but neither can he actually leave the airport terminal and enter New York City.

The airport officials, now associated with the Department of Homeland Security (strangely treated as if this is the way it has always been - forgive the thoughtcrime), actually hope that this isolated visitor will just break the law and escape. Then he will be someone else's headache. Unfortunately for them, he respects their authority, and makes the airport his home.

What follows is an uneasy mixture. At times, it's fascinating to see how he survives, creating a living space in an area of the terminal closed for renovation. (As an afterthought, the script makes him a building contractor in Krakozia, and he's also better and more industrious than the crew actually working on the terminal.)

But there are also scenes in which his cleverness seems like part of a psychological experiment on a monkey, with the security guards watching him on their screens and marveling at how he's worked out how to get a little money.

If there is any condescension toward this stranger in a strange land, it does not come from Hanks. With almost any other actor, this role would seem like Oscar-baiting. Surely, he jumped at the chance to demonstrate a facility for a vaguely Russian accent. But what carries him through is his expressiveness as an actor. What happens to the character sometimes feels forced, but Hanks can make us believe it with a look, especially since for at least half the movie his English cannot even qualify as fractured.

Too much of the movie, though, feels forced because Spielberg keeps undercutting his ability to charm us. As with Catch Me If You Can, you're seeing a director fight his instincts, forgetting that if you build a story right, no matter how improbable, we want to see more. So a cute side romance between a food worker and an immigration officer isn't just on the side; it's practically invisible, so we're jumping from an awkward courtship with Hanks in the middle to a wedding. But Spielberg seems so unsure of its value that we can't feel anything for it, yet there's a dynamite throwaway "reveal" scene that proves that dangit, this guy can direct.

The two sides to the director struggle too hard. For every scene that charms us, he has to counterbalance with one that makes a dubious political point. We almost see what a great place America is, or can be, but he cannot resist reminding us that it's also full of assholes. Hey, we can get that easily outside of the theater, Steven.

Trapped in this dichotomy is Zeta-Jones. Conversely, she gives one of the strongest performances of her career, precisely because it's so gentle. As the love interest Amelia, she plays a flight attendant facing fears about age and loneliness. Stuck in a destructive relationship with a powerful lawyer (Michael Nouri, an underutilized actor), she bides her time with history books while waiting for the page that says their affair can resume. This hard-edged actress drops the veneer, becoming believably fragile and vulnerable in a way her previous roles hardly hinted she could do.

And then the serious director jumps in and starts tearing down all the innocence and fairy-tale nuance that the crowd-pleaser set up. It's hard to give in and really like this movie, because we cannot trust it. That applies even to the ending; it may be real, it may be adequate, but it keeps us at a distance.

That's a mistake, because all the elements are here for us to love. You can temper the sentiment, pull it back from mawkishness, without building a wall between it and the audience. For some reason, Spielberg has not figured out how to do that yet.


Derek McCaw

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