You don’t have to have a working knowledge of Yiddish literature to parse Steven Spielberg’s haimish new comedy, but it helps to have read the great Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem’s tales of the fictitious East European shtetl of Chelm, whose bumbling inhabitants get life’s essentials right by doing everything else wrong. I don’t suppose Spielberg had Aleichem in mind when he made The Terminal, which is set in a supermodern airport fitted with all manner of electronic gizmos. Spielberg loves his state-of-the-art toys, but he also loves nothing better than a holy fool who can humanize a cold, unfeeling world. In Viktor Navorski, a visitor from the equally fictitious East European country of Krakhozia, he has a man-child capable of turning an airport — and by extension, America itself — into a warm and fuzzy village.
Landing at JFK with a beat-up suitcase, a smattering of guidebook English phrases (“Vhere can I buy Nike shooz?”) and a mysterious can of Planter’s peanuts, the amiably clueless Viktor, played by Tom Hanks with a mastery of Russian vowels that would put Meryl Streep to shame, is devastated to learn that his country has been overrun by a coup, and that he’s now a stateless person who can neither return home nor leave the airport and visit Manhattan. No less horrified is Frank Dixon (the reliably steely Stanley Tucci), the ambitious acting airport chief who first informs the astounded bumpkin that, as far as he is concerned, “America is closed” — then bends every rule in the book to try and get Viktor out of the airport so that he can get lost in America and become some other heedless bureaucrat’s problem.
This is easier said than done, for Viktor is not only a good Soviet citizen who has spent his life following the rules, but an angelic innocent who couldn’t deceive if his life depended on it. In short order, this sturdy, literal-minded peasant improvises a cozy home in a disused corner of the terminal and cobbles together a warmly inclusive family out of the usual ethnically correct grab bag of low-level staff. This is an inspired piece of chutzpah. Right now there’s no place in America more coldly impersonal — or more likely to prime our deepest anxieties — than an international airport. Absurd as it is, Viktor’s situation couldn’t be more topical, or more pointed about the arbitrariness of U.S. policy toward foreign nationals. The pacing of The Terminal may be as breezy as Spielberg’s fetchingly cheeky caper Catch Me If You Can (though it’s never as stylish or as light on its feet), but its central dilemma comes closer to the bleak existential predicament of his Philip Dick–inspired Minority Report. Like Tom Cruise’s Detective John Anderton, Viktor is a displaced person marooned in a place that isn’t a place but a virtual reality. Shot in a massive hangar dressed to the last detail like a sleek airport lounge, complete with tucked-away corners of dark decrepitude, The Terminal perfectly captures Spielberg’s ambivalent worship of capitalism. His big boy’s love of gadgetry is everywhere apparent in the security cameras, blinking computer screens and one-way glass walls that monitor Viktor’s movements and turn the frighteningly lifelike set, with its gleaming, cookie-cutter concession stands, into a full-court product-placement campaign that all but eclipses whatever message Spielberg intended about how airports turn people into commodities. “There’s only one thing you can do here,” a sympathetic immigration officer tells him. “Shop.”
Viktor doesn’t know how to shop, and he understands very little of what others say to him. But he does know how to make do, and, like a latter-day Gracie Allen, he has an uncanny gift for coming up roses just by doing his own thing in his own dogged way. Trained in the hilariously hammy drag television sitcom Bosom Buddies, Hanks is an imaginative physical comedian who can find a fresh way to spin even the shamelessly warmed-over shtick that Spielberg serves up scene after scene — Viktor trying to eke out a meal out of crackers and ketchup, or banging a line of conjoined airport chairs into a makeshift bed, or repeatedly Xeroxing his own hand, or slipping on a booby trap of a wet floor deliberately set up by an Indian maintenance man (the wonderfully deadpan Kumar Pallana, late of The Royal Tenenbaums). As he grows fleshier in middle age, Hanks has acquired the gravitas of Gary Cooper, at once vulnerable and dependable, with an edge of remote sadness. As a romantic lead, though, the actor has always been tranquilly unsexy, a quality that stood him in good stead opposite the similarly sexless Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. Here, he makes an awkwardly unpersuasive love interest for the lubricious Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Amelia, a shapely flight attendant with an unerring radar for feckless cads, who recognizes that unlike her married lover, Viktor can give her the stability she thinks she craves.
If Spielberg has never made a convincing romance — his one previous venture into the form was the widely (if, to my mind, excessively) derided 1989 flop Always — neither is he comfortable with realism. Indeed, his most fully realized characters have been larger-than-life shysters like Oskar Schindler and Catch Me If You Can’s Frank Abagnale Jr., mythic figures defined as much by their demons as by their easy charm. In the end it’s this duality, rather than the cloying folksiness of the family values that Viktor brings to the airport lounge, that gives the movie some edge. The Terminal is a parable, a tale of good and evil whose real fun couple is not Viktor and Amelia, but Viktor and Frank Dixon, whose wily scheming makes him the yin to Viktor’s yang. Together they are the dark and the light of the American microcosm that Spielberg creates in The Terminal. This is Spielberg’s second comedy in a row, and the director has been talking a lot about Hollywood’s calling to bring light and warmth to dark times. In the long run, though, Spielberg is less likely to be remembered as an Ernst Lubitsch (in any case, he lacks the psychological sophistication) than as a Frank Capra for our benighted post-9/11, war-torn times. The edge of despair that lurked behind Capra’s feel-good movies for children of the Depression is always there, even in Spielberg’s lightest fare. So it should come as no surprise that even as The Terminal resolves its troubles with a cathartic burst of patriotic sweetness and light, true love slinks away with its tail between its legs.
THE TERMINAL | Directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG | Written by SACHA GERVASI and JEFF NATHANSON | Produced by WALTER F. PARKES, LAURIE MACDONALD and SPIELBERG | Released by DreamWorks Pictures | Citywide
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