Retro Reviews: The Terminal

I’ve recently been reading Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert (Ebert is the film critic that I want to write like, and reading his classic reviews has revealed a love for film that many snarky critics sadly lack. The book is great, and I got it for free when it was being given away as a digital download. Sadly though it’s DRM’d grrr and only reads on the Adobe desktop reader, can’t be read on my ebook reader) and one of the essays there is about how Tom Hanks became the most likable actor in America. It chronicles his rise from young comedian on Bosom Buddies to winning over the country with the string of films A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Forrest Gump. The essay ends at the height of Gump, but having witnessed Hanks’s career beyond we can all see that he remains likable, affable, and often lovable. Heck you can’t stop feeling the tears from your cheeks in those last moments of Saving Private Ryan.

And so I get to The Terminal which I feel is a film that hasn’t been seen by enough people. It also didn’t get enough love from the critics I believe. Revisiting it now (I saw it when it came out and remember being enchanted by its story, which I’ll get to in a bit) and knowing a little bit more about film and filmmaking, I am mesmerized by the technique on display here. They actually built a whole terminal for the film, and this allows for some amazing shots, these deft camera movements and one particularly unforgettable crane shot that features Hanks’s Viktor Navorski standing in the middle of the airport, then steadily dollies away, well beyond the capacity of any normal dolly, until Viktor literally disappears into the terminal and all we see is a long shot of the building, the stores, the crowd, and no way to see the man who is lost and who has lost his country and in effect his identity.

Hanks plays Navorski brilliantly. Add Viktor to the long list of unforgettable Hanks characters. Navorski seems to be a man from an altogether different era. In a post-9/11 airport where security is paranoid to a fault, with his country in a shambles after a revolutionary coup, and faced with an adversary in Stanley Tucci’s Dixon who’s running the airport in an all too by-the-book manner, Navorski remains happy, optimistic, and irrationally hopeful, clinging onto the belief that things will turn out alright just as rigidly as he holds onto that mysterious can of peanuts.

Viktor is going to New York to fulfill a promise. When asked what that promise is, all the can do is point to a can of peanuts. When a revolutionary coup engulfs his country in turmoil, his passport is rendered invalid, and thus also his visa. He can’t leave the airport, nor can he go back to his country. Thus Navorksi is trapped in the airport until all these things are sorted out. While others would be screaming and wailing and furious, Navorski adopts what becomes a mantra for him in the film, “I wait.”

When we think of the premise, it’s terribly simple. Man stuck in an airport. But when we delve deeper, we see so many layers. In some ways this is horrific. I find the prospect of complications with your papers terrifying, and being stuck in an airport not knowing what’s going to happen would cause unspeakable amounts of anxiety. Just losing one’s luggage is a hassle enough, imagine being in the place of that lost luggage, being somewhere you don’t belong. Viktor can’t speak English and no one seems to be keen on helping him. Add on the layers of 9/11 paranoia, the way that people view foreigners, the working class people that Navorski befriends in the airport, and so many other things the film offers and you get a very layered and textured film.

Hanks, not given many lines in the first third of the film, has to act out a man’s desperation as his passport and ticket are taken away, his means of getting food are lost, and he is regarded as a nitwit because he can’t speak English. We feel all of these things as Navorski navigates the airport, and it’s the simplicity and deftness of Spielberg’s directing at play here that we wouldn’t notice how smoothly his shots function. The Spielberg shafts of light are in full attendance, but there are some fun kooky things here too like a Rube Goldberg-esque blocking of pathways leading the beautiful Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones) through an arrival terminal, across waiting area benches, daintily into Navorski’s lap.

For some intertextual fun, there’s the smoking Zoe Saldana playing a security officer who is secretly a trekkie. In yet another heartwarming sequence she holds up her hand in the Vulcan sign “Live long and prosper” before making her big reveal. Fast forward to five years after this film and she’s locking lips with Spock.

There’s a quirky cast surrounding Navorski, and a lot of recognizable faces. Yet it’s never any one of these characters that dominates the film so much as the spirit, will, and optimism that the film tries to convey. In uncertain times (not different from our world today, this was only a few years ago after all, but this came out as Homeland Security was becoming a dominant part of global consciousness and the United States was rushing headlong into the Middle East) The Terminal serves as a fairy tale. Instead of a magical land, it’s an airport, which here functions as an in-between of worlds, a dashing prince is the good-humored Navorski (doubling here for what could well have been in older times Chaplin’s Tramp) and a girl who needs saving. Navorski’s got people around to help in his quest, and he’s got Dixon trying to stop him. All these things are in place, and all of them well-dispatched.

In Ebert’s piece on Hanks he compares Hanks to James Stewart, who many have come to love because of his roles in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Part of it was being able to connect with people, make them think that you were just like them, and thus them relating to you. Another part of is according to Ebert was the kind of mythical/fantastic roles that Hanks had taken up, like Big. Here I think Hanks succeeds even more so in winning people over because he plays someone from a non-existent country (both in the real world and for a while in the world of the film) and yet he shows us the good that we could find in ourselves.

In a time of cynicism and negativity (things I will admit to contributing to, sadly) we often look warily on films that give us hopeful messages. We don’t trust something that could be so unashamedly and unabashedly happy, because we feel there might be a con in there waiting for us. It’s the same with Viktor Navorski’s character and with The Terminal in general. We meet it with a measure of distrust because movies aren’t supposed to be this fun and happy and whimsical. And even with that tone that it establishes it brings us these moments of genuine sadness and loss, made all the more poignant because we are expecting all things to go right. It’s a rare thing to say, but The Terminal is a life-affirming film. Making it even better is that it doesn’t try too hard to be one. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but I seems like a perfect thing to watch in the season, or any season.

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6 Responses to Retro Reviews: The Terminal

  1. dododayao says:

    Nice, pre. I became a born-again Spielberg fan after being thoroughly blown away by A.I. My “complaint” about his work before that was that he had gotten too sentimental and maudlin and lacked the edginess of other genre-centric filmmakers I used to like and his attempts at making serious films (Color Purple, Amistad) just fell flat. I was a lot younger back then – -a still don’t like Purple or Amistad,though. His body of work from AI onward,however,remain his best works for me and I particularly like the way he uses his own image as a feel-good filmmaker for misdirection – – -how the happy endings of AI and Minority Report and War of the Worlds front darker realities and how his own obvious antipathies about George W’s America are swaddled in the warm, fuzzy package this one comes in. Except for Jaws, CE3k and 1941 (my favorite of his post-A.I. films and possibly his most anarchic work) I think his work from A.I. onwards is his best – – -save for that misbegotten fourth Indiana Jones movie, which I hated. I felt iffy at first about this one, for the reasons you cited and for the reasons I’ve always disliked about Spielberg’s early work, but I’ve seen it three times already, the last two randomly but still. And I’ve enjoyed it each time. So maybe I’m getting old and mellow. 🙂

    Try watching Jaques Tati’s Playtime, man. Jacques Tati’s recurring Chaplin-like character Mr.Hulot was apparently the inspiration for Tom Hanks’ Viktor (not to mention Sandler’s character in Punchdrunk Love) and Spielberg has said that he took a ton of notes from Playtime himself when making Terminal, starting with the sets. Spielberg built an entire airport for the film. Tati built an entire modern city. It’s a breathtaking, brazenly happy film. One of my desert island films. And a terrific companion piece to this one.

    • Carl Javier says:

      Know where I can get a copy of Playtime? I have a gaping hole in my film knowledge which occurs around the time I was in high school. But I remember when I was a college freshman the first movie that I saw at the UP Film Center was Saving Private Ryan. I didn’t know about directors yet, how important they were, or anything like that. Didn’t know much about film. But I felt something powerful, something vital there. And I think that movie helped to remind me of why I like movies in the first place. The first movie that made me realize that I loved movie theaters was Spielberg too, it was Jurassic Park, which I watched over and over as a kid, dragging whoever I could to the theater just to see those massive dinosaurs. And by the time I had really started reading and studying film (sort of, never really studied it in a formal way) I realized that Spielberg was one of my favorite filmmakers, with movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and E.T. among my childhood favorites. Though I still hold those too-happy endings against Spielberg, gotta admit AI, War of the Worlds, and Minority Report are amazing sci-fi movies.
      I particularly like Terminal in Spielberg’s oeuvre because it’s not the type of film you’d expect from him, coming off the roll of films that he was, post-Schindler’s and Private Ryan and I think this was after Catch Me If You Can. There’s a sweetness and light to it that is rare in most films, and that makes it sparkle. But now that you mention Tati’s Playtime, I am all too intrigued.

  2. dododayao says:

    I meant “pre-A.I.” when I mentioned 1941 back there. Sorry, still woozy from paracetamol and cough meds. 🙂

  3. dododayao says:

    I might have a copy of Playtime hanging around somewhere. Need to slog through the pile in my room and double-check if i’ve lent it or not. I’ll let you know. My dream is to see it in a 70mm theater as it was meant to be, to catch all the tiny details in the frame. Someday. If all else fails, I’ll just opt for multiple viewings on a really big TV/

    Those too-happy endings were my main grief with Spielberg as a kid myself. But now that I’m . . . not a kid anymore, I kinda find some of them rather . . . comforting. Like BenGay. 🙂

    • Carl Javier says:

      haha bengay. so they make you feel nice and warm, with tinges of discomfort. pwede rin. guess spielberg has problems shaking those big hollywood endings. sige pahanap. there are so many films that I wish I could see in film. but it looks like HD on a big TV will have to do.

  4. sungazer says:

    and one particularly unforgettable crane shot that features Hanks’s Viktor Navorski standing in the middle of the airport, then steadily dollies away, well beyond the capacity of any normal dolly, until Viktor literally disappears into the terminal and all we see is a long shot of the building, the stores, the crowd, and no way to see the man who is lost and who has lost his country and in effect his identity.

    I wrote a paper on this film for Film 101 and I pointed out this shot as well. Very, very effective.

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