THE TERMINAL is another cloying schmaltz-fest from Tom Hanks aided and abetted by Steven Spielberg. The premise is based on the true story of a man without a country stuck at a Paris airport for years on end living by his wits and the kindness of strangers. So much to work with, including the kind of stir-crazy madness that comes of being stuck in any airport for any length of time, but Hanks and Spielberg have, as they say, gone another way and whipped up a feel-good fable complete with romance and a sappy back story.
Hanks is Victor, a plucky visitor to New York who has had the bad luck to lose his country mid-flight. While en route, there was a revolution, rendering his passport worthless and the visa attached to it useless. Neither a refugee nor a tourist, Victor is stuck in legal limbo until the American government recognizes the new regime, which translates for Victor into a very long stay in the international waiting area at the unidentified airport in New York where hes landed. With a command of the English language that is not quite rudimentary, Victor is dumped into that lounge with a pager, a phone card to call the folks back home, and a few vouchers for the food court. It isnt until he catches a glimpse of the terminal’s many televisions, all tuned into the cable news coverage of the revolution back home that he realizes somethings very wrong. It’s a genuinely affecting sequence that captures his confusion, terror, and helplessness. And it’s also the last of anything resembling reality that this film will address.
Stymied in his attempts to use the phone card given him, Victor seems to lose any interest at all in contacting his homeland to see how friends and family are weathering the turmoil. Instead, he teaches himself English with a guidebook, makes camp at Gate 67, which is undergoing renovations, and makes friends with the folks who staff the airport. He also catches the eye of Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the gorgeous flight attendant with a penchant for picking married men. He also lands a job as a contractor, and regular meals from a lovesick guy from the airline catering area who wants Victor to do a Cyrano thing for him with a stylish security guard. That Victor is subjected to a steady diet of airline fare might be violating the Geneva Convention on some level, but that, like why construction tools such as hammers, saws, and screwdrivers are left out in the open of an active airport overnight, are never addressed. Its not that kind of film.
Even with two hours of screen time, there is never more than a sketchy approach to any of the characters or their situations. That Victor irks snippy Immigration honcho Stanley Tucci is a given because you have to have a villain here. The script goes so far as to plaster his office with fish that are a fine example of the taxidermists craft in an attempt to flesh him out, but then fails to explore his inner psyche. Instead, it sets him up for several punch lines and then forget about him until its time to taunt Victor again. For the rest, a few bold strokes to establish that this person is only crusty on the outside, or that this one is a hopeless romantic, and then its on to the moral, the collective awwwww, and the next bit of schtick that keeps this lightest of light comedies afloat. Even Hanks, who is on screen virtually every minute, gets short shrift with his Balkan-accented one-note character who embodies that chirpy sort of optimism that was so popular back in Teddy Roosevelts day. If his Victor were any more earnest, hed be Tiny Tim invoking the deity to God bless us every one.
THE TERMINAL is the slickest sort of escapism, designed to amuse, slightly, but not challenge, and then send its viewers out into the world with the sense that they have seen something profound. For the audience that prefers its cinema replete with pat and predictable plotting, it is perfection itself.