tom hanks the terminal
We Need To Smile More

“I am going home.”

Steven Spielberg doesn’t make many films that take place in a contemporary setting. The bulk of his filmography consists of stories set either in the past or the future. Yet every now and then, he’ll return to the present just to remind us he can. As was the case with 2004’s The Terminal.

The Terminal was the first Spielberg film to go into production after 9/11, and yet it’s not what one would call an overtly political film. Indeed, Minority Report seems like a more direct reaction to 9/11 than The Terminal. But that’s part of The Terminal’s design. With this film, Spielberg was using somewhat alarming current events to craft a happy-go-lucky story, whether we wanted it or not.

“I wanted to do another movie that could make us laugh and cry and feel good about the world,” the filmmaker said. “I wanted to do something else that could make us smile. This is a time when we need to smile more and Hollywood movies are supposed to do that for people in difficult times.”

Some may find this willfully oblivious. Or perhaps naive. The events of September 11th changed the country as we knew it, and would hurtle us into seemingly never-ending wars. What was there to smile about?

Yet Spielberg, the eternal optimist, still didn’t want to give himself over entirely to the darkness. Yes, just like Catch Me If You Can, a darkness and melancholy seeps into The Terminal. But Spielberg won’t let it entirely take hold. He can’t. To do so would be to admit defeat.

Spielberg came across The Terminal by chance. Here is how Steven Spielberg spends his weekends, according to the man himself: he sits down with a dozen or so screenplays, and reads through them, hoping to find his next film. During one such weekend marathon session, he read The Terminal and was blown away. The rest is history, although most will tell you The Terminal amounts to little more than a footnote in the big book of Spielberg. 

Yet there’s more to the movie than meets the eye. While Catch Me If You Can was a film that didn’t rely on special effects, and shot mostly on location, The Terminal is one big special effect. Yes, it’s a character piece about one man, but the world that man inhabits is entirely fabricated from the ground up. The Terminal is set almost entirely in an airport, and to get the film made, Spielberg had a full scale, almost fully functioning airport built. You could practically land real planes on this set.

That may not seem very impressive on paper, but in actuality, it’s staggering. The airport of The Terminal never feels fake; never feels constructed for a story. It’s a living, breathing, exhausting place, full of countless extras bustling to and fro. At one point, Spielberg sets up an amazing tracking shot where the camera starts on the face of main star Tom Hanks, then quickly zooms up and out, revealing the entire airport in the process. There’s an entire world in here, and it’s as if every single person in this airport has their own story. We just happen to focus in on one story in particular.

the terminal hanks tucci

America Is Closed 

That story is the story of Viktor Navorski (Hanks), a man from the (fictional) nation of Krakozhia. Viktor has come to New York City to fulfill a promise. Unfortunately, just as Viktor arrives at the airport, a civil war breaks out in his country. The civil war renders Krakozhia a non-country as far as the United States is concerned. As such, Viktor can neither return home – his passport has been seized – nor leave the terminal and set foot on American soil. He is now a man without a country.

Viktor’s main obstacle is Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the customs director for the airport. “America is closed,” Dixon tells Viktor. It would’ve been simple to make Dixon a sneering, conniving villain. A self-centered bureaucrat like the mayor from Jaws. But Dixon isn’t exactly a bad guy. He’s just someone doing his job. And he’s even willing, at first, to look the other way and let Viktor illegally escape the airport.

But Viktor doesn’t escape. He stays, and begins living in the terminal. Over the course of his stay, he befriends several characters. There’s a custodian (Diego Luna) in love with a customs agent (Zoë Saldana); there’s a janitor (Kumar Pallana) who revels in making people slip on the wet floors; and there’s a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) stuck in a go-nowhere affair with a married man.

These people filter in and out of Viktor’s life as Viktor grows more and more accustomed to America. Or at least, a version of America filtered through the world of the airport.

“I thought it was an amazing idea and I had an immediate affinity for Viktor’s story,” said Spielberg. “I believe all of us have felt a little bit like Viktor at some time in our lives – this displaced person in search of a life. And I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, at some point, spent longer sitting in an airport chair than on the airplane ride itself. Airports have become small microcosms of society: they’re places to eat, shop and meet people.”

There’s an earnest (and again, possibly naive) exploration of Viktor’s plight inherent to The Terminal. In the film’s somewhat sanitized view, there’s a goodness even in the coldest of hearts. “Compassion: that’s the foundation of this country!” Dixon’s supervisor scolds him at one point. At the time, a line like this may have worked. Here, in the wake of the Trump administration’s highly controversial, life-ruining travel bans, it causes a double-take. We want to believe there are people in positions of power who still think like this, but it’s hard to believe there are. 

“It’s really an immigrant’s tale, although technically, Viktor is not an immigrant,” Spielberg said. “It goes back to what makes America so great and so strong – immigrants coming to ‘The Land of Milk and Honey’ from around the globe, coming to a place where they’re allowed to dream of a better life for themselves. In some ways, we’ve lost sight of the immigrant’s plight because security is more intense…The Terminal celebrates the great American melting pot.”

Spielberg is, of course, right. This is how the country, and immigration, should work, even if those in power right now certainly don’t think so. This is Spielberg’s inherent goodness shining through. His eternal optimism, hoping for the best even in the face of the worst. And perhaps as a result, we need a movie like The Terminal now more than ever. Perhaps we need someone to remind us of what we’re in danger of losing, even if it’s done in blunt, unsubtle terms. Perhaps in many ways, The Terminal was ahead of its time.

Still, Spielberg isn’t so naive that he can pretend everything is fine. There are throwaway lines here and there hinting at unpleasantness, such as the scene where Dixon tries to have Viktor thrown in jail without success. Afterward, he mutters “The country’s detaining so many people there’s no room for him anywhere,” and moves on. The implications of such a line are dark to the extreme, but The Terminal doesn’t want to dwell on them.

Continue Reading Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal >>

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