Even if you’re scared of flying, an airport can be an odd sort of comfort zone. The grayish-white plastic walls are soothing and womblike. The magazine stores and fast-food outlets, the stands dispensing waxy Danish and borderline undrinkable coffee all feel a little less sterile than they might elsewhere. They’re not just ho-hum businesses — they’re Things to Do. Regardless of who you are, being in an airport always makes you feel like a bit of a kid. Yet there’s a flip side. Look up at one of the monitors and discover that the flight you’re on has been delayed for several hours, and the comfortable numbness can turn stultifying. Suddenly, the tranquil travel mall has become a prison.
I experienced both of those sensations, to varying degrees, while watching Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, a movie about a man who gets stuck at New York’s JFK International Airport, only to see the giant hub become his holding cell, his purgatory, and his home. After arriving at his gate, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), an eager, disheveled traveler from Eastern Europe, is getting ready to pass through customs when he learns that he can’t go anywhere. There has been a military coup in his native (and fictional) country of Krakozhia, and his passport is no longer valid. Officially, he’s a ”citizen of nowhere,” ordered to stay within the confines of the International Transit Lounge. Viktor, who speaks fragments of English, carries an old Planters peanuts tin around with him, and its mystery contents, we gather, are connected to the reason for his journey. Will he ever make it to Manhattan — or, more precisely, to the Ramada Inn on Lexington Avenue? Oh, the sadness, the irony of it! He has arrived to fulfill his dream in America, and they won’t even let him in.
You’d think it would be a temporary problem. The snarly, rule-bound security officer, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), would like to be rid of Viktor; he even tries to goad him into escaping. But Viktor is a dutiful and passive soul, and he won’t venture out. He remains at the airport in limbo, a walking bureaucratic snafu, and the hours stretch into days, weeks, months. Hanks, throwing out fractured syllables of Krakozhian without ever quite playing his accent for cheap laughs, cultivates an honorable workingman’s slouch, and he lowers his eyebrows into a squint of gentle perplexity. He makes Viktor into a post-Soviet Chaplinesque ”little man.”
Viktor is given food vouchers, which he promptly loses, and he gets shunted around without any thought to his physical comfort. Yet he takes all of it in stride. It’s a subliminal joke that he never gets the least bit upset or exasperated. Having been raised, or so we presume, within the dilapidated remnants of a joyless, authoritarian land, Viktor has learned to accept his lot in life, and so he asks for nothing. He’s an endlessly patient, potato-headed good guy — a lumpen saint with no visible anger or sexual appetite. He’s quaintly likable. He’s also a little tedious. ”The Terminal” has a wan and precious pseudo-charm, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Spielberg, in essence, is doing what you do when you sit around an airport. He’s killing time.
There’s a bare-bones castaway logic to Viktor’s plight. He returns stray baggage carts for the reward of a quarter apiece, and he appears to hone his English by reading the ticker on TV news channels. But Spielberg, working from a script by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson (the story is by Gervasi and ”The Truman Show”’s Andrew Niccol), turns Viktor’s stay at JFK mostly into a fish-out-of-water lark. He has made a hermetic Krakozhia on the Hudson. Viktor gets to know a coyly hostile Indian sanitation worker (Kumar Pallana), who enjoys watching people slip on freshly cleaned floors, and he agrees to play Cupid for Enrique (Diego Luna), who’s secretly in love with a sexy customs officer (the vibrant Zoë Saldana). Viktor also develops a chaste flirtation of his own: He keeps running into Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a breathless flight attendant whose romantic life is a case study in doormat cluelessness. She is drawn, of course, to Viktor’s deep-down nobility, yet watching this character, whose vulnerable flightiness marks her as a relic of the Diane Keaton?Goldie Hawn heyday, I felt as if Spielberg needed to get out more. I didn’t mind ”The Terminal,” but I didn’t really buy it, either. Spielberg has crafted the film with a proficiency as seamless, and impersonal, as the setting, and you may feel, after a while, that you’re longing for your departure time.