No modern traveler has more notoriety than Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who has been stranded in Terminal One of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport since 1988. Nasseri was expelled from Iran in 1977 and spent 10 years trying to gain political asylum in Europe. That all came to an end when his bag was stolen in Paris, essentially stranding him at CDG. In 1993, a movie was made about him (Lost in Transit), starring Jean Rochefort. Nasseri’s life reappears on screen this year in The Terminal, courtesy of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. And shamefully, Nasseri goes unmentioned in the movie’s production notes.
In The Terminal, Spielberg gives us Hanks as Viktor Navorski, a visitor from the fictitious country of Krakhozia in Eastern Europe. Hanks, made up to be pasty and lumpy, puts on a mush-mouthed accent reminiscent of Yakov Smirnoff, and finds himself landing at New York’s JFK on a mission we won’t discover until the end of the film. We know only that it involves a Planters peanut can.
Too bad for Viktor that his visa is denied once he lands in the U.S. – his country’s government has been overthrown during the course of his flight. The U.S. no longer recognizes his passport, and his country no longer exists. Viktor can’t come into the U.S., nor can he return home. Homeland Security agent Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) has no choice but to sequester him in the airport’s international terminal, strictly forbidding Viktor from setting foot outside.
Viktor, who barely speaks English, quickly comes to understand his predicament, and soon enough he’s taken up residence in part of the terminal under construction. He learns to read and subsist on quarters refunded from the Smarte Carte machine. He becomes friends with the local shopkeepers and airport staff, and he falls for a sexy but scattered flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who happens through.
Months pass. Will Viktor ever get out of the terminal? Dixon, who’s up for a big promotion, wants him out of the airport by any means necessary, eventually goading him into trying to escape so he’ll get arrested. In one of the more interesting character spins in the film, we learn that figuratively, Dixon is as much a prisoner of the terminal as Viktor. Their sparring leads to some of the movie’s more memorable moments.
It’s strange and unfortunate then that those memorable bits are so few and far between. Spielberg’s ballyhooed terminal set, built from scratch and shiny as hell, is nothing more than a giant vehicle for product placement for some 35 real-life stores. (I was initially shocked to see a La Perla lingerie outlet in the terminal, but it turns out there really is one in Munich International. Amazing. But why couldn’t they get the real CNN to appear on the airport TVs instead of the phony ‘GHN’ network?)
Consumerism aside, the main problem is the coldness of Viktor’s story. We don’t feel for him, we simply pity him like someone with a severe speech impediment. Viktor’s not really a hero. He’s not fighting for anything aside from the contents of that peanut can (which turns into a thin subplot at best), and his romance with Zeta-Jones borders on the absurd. He’s just going with the flow, doing what he’s told. The result is an extremely hollow movie that goes on for far too long (two hours, feels like three) and chases about three too many go-nowhere subplots. Blame it on a lackluster script if you will (Jeff Nathanson wrote Catch Me If You Can but he also penned Speed 2); this story would have worked better as a broad comedy instead of a mopey think piece mixed with a romance.
Thankfully, flashes of humor in the film flirt with brilliance. Hanks delivers a few good belly laughs, but it’s Kumar Pallana (The Royal Tenenbaums) who steals the show as a paranoid Indian baggage handler. He’s both rude and hysterical in every scene. Pallana needs his own sitcom, stat.
Buried in The Terminal you’ll find a theme or two. One is rather clever, about how The New America is obsessed with keeping foreigners out of the country while in reality they’re running the infrastructure at our airports. The second is a little less successful, about how you can feel alienation and loneliness despite being surrounded by throngs of humanity. Unfortunately, there are probably no two people alive who have less business exploring a story about alienation than Hanks and Spielberg, who thrive on acceptance by people – and get it at every turn.
The film is very well made, and from Spielberg we’d expect nothing less. It unfortunately comes with all of his baggage and nothing groundbreaking to speak of. When we enter the terminal for the first time, a voice-over may as well boom-out, ‘Look at the masterful set I built!‘ All of Spielberg’s other hallmarks are in place too, right down to the intrusive John Williams score. After two outstanding flicks (Catch Me and Minority Report), I suppose he deserves a meatball.
Ultimately, two hours in The Terminal closely resembles two hours in a real airport terminal. It’s also not unlike experience of talking to a foreigner who barely speaks English: Strangely intriguing, but kind of sad and deeply frustrating.
What, no Hot Dog on a Stick?