terminal movie ending

Where Do You Want To Go?

The key to The Terminal’s success – other than Spielberg’s direction – is Tom Hanks’ lead performance. Hanks’ approach to Viktor’s broken English seems genuine; not something put on simply for laughs. What’s more, Hanks is adept at making Viktor seem like an outsider without dipping fully into parody. In less skilled hands, this could’ve turned into a performance akin to Andy Kaufman playing Latka Gravas. Instead, Viktor seems real.

Part of this has to do with pathos. When Viktor first learns about the civil war in his country (via television news), Spielberg zooms in close on Hanks’ face, and the actor conveys a range of shock, fear, and heartbreak. Just like with Frank Abagnale, it is easy for us to become wrapped-up in Viktor’s story, and to root for him.

Because just like Frank, he’s a man without a home. That Robert Frost quote runs through the mind again: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” But no one in America will take Viktor in, and he can’t even return to Krakozhia. There’s simply nowhere he belongs.

Not everything in The Terminal works. Most of the supporting characters are a wash. Everyone is performing amiably, but it’s hard for us to care much for the bulk of them. And an attempt at romance between Hanks’ character and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ stewardess character never really gets off the ground.

And then there’s the film’s central MacGuffin: Viktor’s reasoning to be in New York. He has a coffee can filled with autographs from every jazz musician featured in Art Kane’s historic “A Great Day in Harlem” photograph. Every autograph, except one: Benny Golson. The autographs belonged to Viktor’s father, who has since died. Viktor made a death-bed promise to his father that he would get Golson’s autograph (if you thought this was going to be the one Spielberg film without a father subplot, think again!). This revelation is meant to be touching and sweet, but it doesn’t land as well as the script by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson wishes it would. The revelation is almost an afterthought, really. We don’t need to know why Viktor is in America. We just need to know he’s there.

Despite these flaws, there’s such inventiveness on display here. Spielberg stages big, comical moments like classic silent movie slapstick. He draws from Hanks a hilarious, frequently silent performance. And he always has the camera on the move. It zigs and zags from one corner of the terminal to the next, conveying an entire world in the process. When Viktor first arrives at the airport, Janusz Kaminski bathes the film in a cold, sterile blue look. Yet as Viktor begins to settle in, and become more and more at home, the color of the film begins to warm up, as if Spielberg and Kaminski are slowly cranking up a thermostat and creating a cozy environment for us.

And then there’s the film’s heartening ending. The civil war ends, and Viktor is finally able to both enter America and return home to Krakozhia. He’s able to track down Benny Golson’s autograph. Satisfied, he climbs into a taxi as the snow drifts down on New York City.

“Where do you want to go?” the cab driver asks.

“I’m going home,” Viktor says after a beat, and those words sound so lovely; so welcoming. After all, there’s no place like home.

the terminal movie hanks

Light, Then Dark

“I don’t plan my career, you know,” Steven Spielberg said after the release of The Terminal. “I don’t think I’ll go dark, dark, dark, then light, then dark. I react spontaneously to what falls into my arms, to what is right at the time.”

Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal are companion pieces, even if a few years separate their releases. In many ways, they seem to be reactions to each other.

Catch Me If You Can is a film always on the movie, while The Terminal is all about standing still.

Catch Me If You Can is low on big visual effects and big sets, while The Terminal is loaded with them. And both films were a reminder that Spielberg could still give audiences light-hearted films to enjoy.

But now the lightheartedness was seemingly gone from Spielberg’s system. His next two films would take the filmmaker to dark, hopeless territory. In 2005, he would release two very different films that were both stark, often chilling reactions to September 11th, and the events that followed it. The end result would be two of the best films of his already incredible career.


In the next edition of 21st Century Spielberg, Part 3: The War On Terror – War of the Worlds & Munich.

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