Flying into a New York airport from Eastern Europe for a harmless visit to the city, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) learns that his home country has fallen into revolution, and he's stuck without a working passport. Unable to enter America until his homeland is secured, Viktor must spend a day in the airport terminal and wait for news. Under the watchful and annoyed eye of edgy security chief Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci, in a softball role), Viktor's day turns into nine months, during which he learns to speak English, interacts with the terminal's employees (including Chi McBride, Diego Luna, and Kumar Pallana), and falls in love with a flight attendant named Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is awful at relationships.
In recent years, Steven Spielberg has been intent on showcasing a sort of hard-edged artistic integrity, through films like "Minority Report," "A.I.," and "Catch Me If You Can." "The Terminal" (IMDb listing) returns Spielberg to the warmer climates of the heart, and delivers on the maestro's true gift for manipulation. His new film doesn't take Spielberg to the classic heights he once climbed annually, but it's a great reminder that he can still churn out an adult crowd pleaser when he wants to.
"The Terminal" makes full use of that trademarked Hanks charm. In a role made trickier by Viktor's thick accent, Hanks' gift for physical comedy is key to selling the performance. Hanks is more than game, richly conveying Viktor's amazement and confusion in his new home, and his ability to survive peacefully in the middle of the daily commuter commotion. Coming off his insane take on gentlemanly southern treachery in the Coen Brothers' "The Ladykillers," there's something about Spielberg that brings Hanks to the next level of emotional resonance, without requiring the actor to overplay his hand. It's a tremendous performance that anchors the film. The audience is Viktor, and we feel every cautious and curious step.
"The Terminal" isn't too taxing a dramatic piece, but it works solidly as a Spielberg crowd pleaser. The script allows the filmmaker to dive into his favorite waters of romantic entanglements, the little guy overcoming adversity, and final sacrifices for ultimate victory. Loosely based off a true story, Spielberg's film is somewhat amazing since it incorporates all these dramatic arcs in just one location: the airport, which is normally a black hole of claustrophobia and frustration. Spielberg neatly arranges the microcosm of travelers, employees and airport officials like chess pieces around his gigantic set. That's right, I said set. Production designer Alex McDowell's work on creating the simulated airport terminal featured in the film is nothing short of miraculous, and Spielberg covers every inch of his craftsmanship for effect. It all blends together seamlessly and creates an intimate sense of community for Viktor and the audience. It's Hollywood magic in its finest hour.
Also at his finest is the supporting work by none other than Kumar Pallana, the tiny Indian sidekick found in all of Wes Anderson's features. Here, Pallana plays Gupta, an airport janitor who is suspicious of Viktor's presence. Working with all these acting heavyweights, Pallana almost steals the movie with his bizarre blend of amateur acting and unaffected charm. Spielberg even brings out Pallana's gifts for juggling in a sequence where the janitor tries to entertain Viktor and Amelia on their first date. Fantastic.
Like everything Spielberg has done recently, "Terminal" runs a bit too long at 128 minutes. Viktor and Amelia's relationship gets a little too complicated, Frank's bastard tendencies become one-note, and the ending is dragged out to the street and beaten severely as Spielberg goes for the heartstrings a little too obviously. There's a tighter film to be found in "The Terminal," but Spielberg isn't interested in efficiency. What he has here might be flawed, but it's reassuring to see the director return to his roots of character exploration in a fanciful location.
Filmfodder Grade: B+