Directed by Steven Spielberg
I hate flying mainly because I hate airports. I hate airports because I hate waiting. So the idea of a movie about waiting in an airport didn’t immediately appeal to me. As it turns out, The Terminal is one of my favourite movies of the year.
I think director Steven Spielberg has several things working for him in the movie. To begin with, the idea is intriguing and the script is good.
Then he has a set that is perfect and, surprisingly, isn’t an actual airport – unbelievably, it was created for the movie.
He also gets a performance from Tom Hanks that is one of the actor’s best – if not the best he’s given us.
Finally, he has Stanley Tucci in a supporting role that is also brilliant, contrasting nicely against Hanks character. (Some reviewers don’t agree with me on this. They find Tucci too much the bad guy, but I don’t see it this way.)
Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man from a fictional eastern European country (Krakozhia) who speaks little or no English.
After he lands in New York, it’s discovered a coup has taken place in Krakozhia while Viktor was in flight. It’s not certain who speaks for the government.
So Krakozhia is not officially recognized by the U.S. and this means Viktor’s visa is invalid – he’s a man without a country and therefore cannot be allowed in the US
He must wait in the airport; he cannot leave it. As it turns out, no one expected he would remain there. It was hoped he would leave illegally and become someone else’s problem. But Viktor doesn’t, saying, “I wait.”
While the movie begins a bit slowly, what begins to emerge is a portrait of Viktor.
It’s a little astonishing, not just in that Hanks’ performance is so detailed and nuanced, but in the fact the entire film is focused on him and he is essentially a “nice guy,” one of the hardest roles to make interesting in a story.
(You’ll often hear actors saying they prefer playing villains because they are more interesting, which is another way of saying much easier to play.)
Along the way, Viktor encounters a variety of characters that help to fill out the film and provide opportunities to see more of what kind of man Viktor is, and the world of the airport, which is a complete, self-contained and multi-cultural community of delightful characters.
The movie is a comedy but it’s really best described as a character study.
I recall hearing Tom Hanks once in an interview (maybe the Charlie Rose interview included on the DVD of Cast Away) saying he was drawn to characters who are essentially lonely and I think, as in Cast Away, this is the heart of The Terminal and what makes Hanks’ Viktor so interesting and appealing.
We’re drawn to Viktor because of his wonderful combination of qualities – some wonder, some humour, a gentleness and kindness, but mainly his tenacity in tandem with all these. In fact, it’s this quality that also draws the other characters in the film to him, including Tucci’s Frank, the man in charge of the airport’s security.
This is why I love Tucci in this film. You can only see him as the bad guy if you are inattentive.
Frank is also trapped in the airport, waiting, and he is very aware of this. Slowly, he sees Viktor as a man with qualities he wished he had – which is probably why Viktor becomes such a focus for him.
As the film develops, he comes to depend on Viktor and in the end, he roots for Viktor as much as anyone – perhaps even more. But being Frank, he can only express this in subtle, self-defensive ways.
It could also be said The Terminal is a romantic comedy and it’s certainly true there is romance in Viktor’s relationship with Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But this is really only a subplot used as another vehicle to articulate the character of Viktor.
Many of the best scenes are between Viktor and Amelia. Part of the film’s wonderful ending is due to the handling of the relationship.
It allows the filmmakers to do two things: 1) temper the conclusion so it doesn’t come across as too happy, too false, 2) reinforce what the film is really about – Viktor’s tenacity and true victory. (And perhaps this is why he is named Viktor.)
I’ve seen The Terminal twice and the more I think of it the more convinced I am that this is an absolute jewel of movie, a quiet, subtle one. It seems at first a gentle comedy, and it is, but it also has some of the quality of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in its hopeful resolution tempered by a smidgen of melancholy.
If I had to sum up briefly what the movie is about, I would say The Terminal is about the triumph of character and the impact of dignity and decency on the world. It’s simply a marvelous movie.
(Originally posted in 2004.)