Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Terminal, The (2004) **

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Andrew Niccol, Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson. Photography, Janusz Kaminski. Editing, Michael Kahn. Production design, Alex McDowell. Art direction, Christopher Burian-Mohr, Isabelle Guay. Music, John Williams. Cast: Tom Hanks (as Viktor Navorski,) Catherine Zeta-Jones (Amelia), Stanley Tucci (Frank Dixon,) Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Zoe Saldana. Eddie Jones, et al. A DreamWorks--Amblin--Parkes/MacDonald production. 130 minutes. PG-13.

“The Terminal” is certainly watchable, but the often admirable Steven Spielberg could have done better in several ways.

Arduous research shows that reactions by both professional and amateur reviewers run all the way from praise to rejection.

Sill, by the time the final box-office statistics emerge I bet that the movie will be most successful summer fare. “Successful, ” of course, is not synonymous with “very good.” The centuries-old Latin adage “Vox populi, vox Dei” (the people’s voice is God’s voice) is not a valid one since it often deals with lowest common denominators.

One of my objections is not about the film proper but about the huge majority of reviews which do not mention that this picture was loosely inspired by a real case, about facts that, subliminally, or no, give the movie a larger dimensions. To wit:

In 1979 Iran (the old Persia) its longtime ruler, Emperor Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was deposed. Shortly before that event, Merhan Karimi Nasseri, returned to Iran from his studies in England but was expelled for his anti-Shah-ism. Back in Europe, passportless Nasseri applied for political refugee status in country after country. Finally succeeding he tried to go to England and seek family there (he claimed his mother was British.) But in Paris his documents were stolen. To make a complicated story short, Nasseri found himself at the huge De Gaulle airport (near Paris) as a man without a country. He was stuck for year after year, and to this very day, becoming a most unusual, weird fixture – and the subject of many articles as well as documentaries. Today he is in his mid-fifties.

In the Spielberg movie, the hugely talented Tom Hanks is Viktor Navorski, a citizen of the (imaginary) East European country of Krakozhia. He arrives at the JFK airport in New York with a valid passport, but-–tough luck--this coincides with a coup taking over. Krakhozia. Alas for our hero, the U.S. now no longer recognize Viktor’s country. So, he is stuck in JFK where he deals primarily with Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the ambitious but insecure Number 2 of airport security.

So far, the story sort of makes sense. But it gets incredibly nonsensical and we need to suspend too much disebelief as Dixon palavers with Viktor. The latter’s near-total lack of the English language causes confusion after confusion to a degree that weakens the movie hugely. Dixon, most improbably, keeps addressing Viktor as if the Krakozhian understood him.

Why Dixon does not seek an interpreter, not even one who could speak a different but still workable Slavic language, is a big, big hole in the story.

Something like that is, in fact, used later on in a superfluous sequence where a Russian (?) traveler carrying medicines (first, “for my father,” then “for my goat ”) and Viktor becomes the interpreter, addressing the fellow in a Slavic (no doubt fake) language. But it is too little, too late for the movie. As the film spreads over weeks and months, what microscopic English Viktor picks up does not help much.

The lack of verbal communication is exploited less for pathos than for comedy. The real-life story is serious-–and Mr. Nasseri knows several languages. His situation is dramatic, whereas the movie’s gets close to slapstick and works mostly as Kafka Lite, very lite. A big loss.

“The Terminal” being a Hollywood movie cannot resist the obligatory elements of love. One of them is fine: Viktor has bonded with three foreign, menial employees of the airport. The youngest, a Latino, is in love with a gorgeous, dark-skinned American gal (Zoe Saldana, whose parents are Dominican.) She works for Immigration & Naturalization. Viktor becomes the go-between – in nicely repeated mini-scenes.

But when it comes to love-and-Viktor, the addition of pretty flight attendant Zeta-Jones who, for seven years has had a married lover and now becomes friendly with Viktor, is pure padding. Mercifully this new relationship redeems itself somewhat by not coming to fruition as a love affair. That’s not surprising since Spielberg is a men’s director who regularly includes romance but in add-on fashion.

Padding too is Viktor’s obsession with wanting to go to New York City in what seems to be a gigantic need to see the Big Apple. But, as awkwardly revealed, his persistence comes from a maudlin, artificial reason, one that is revealed too late and leads to the film’s unsatisfactory happy ending.

There is quite a list of defects in the movie, including gaps, unexplained story directions, unclear passage of time, artificial details, and much else. But we do get a few major plusses.

Notwithstanding the improbability of the characters, the performance by Hanks is as usual, superior-- down to his tour-de-force Slavic accent. All that in spite of an over-written role. Hanks is like the motto of the city of Paris: “fluctuat nec mergitur,” (It floats but does not sink.) Tucci’s acting too is notable, in spite of its limited, one-tone nature.

A huge big plus is the stunning , rich, imaginative reconstruction of the main set as a modernistic JFK. It is bound to be Academy-nominated and perhaps win a 2005 Oscar for stage design.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel