Sunday, December 11, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.17: Steven Spielberg's The Terminal

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, 2004’s light comedy The Terminal.

Grade: 64 (B)

How to follow such triumphs as A.I., Minority Report, and Catch Me if You Can? Spielberg fans enraptured by his late, intellectually curious films likely expected a little more from The Terminal, no doubt Spielberg’s most light-hearted film since E.T. (and it’s possibly even lighter). A wafer-thin comedy about a man stuck in an airport in a foreign land probably didn’t sound like the most promising of ideas, and the film’s relatively modest (for a Spielberg film, at least) box office intake of $220 million dollars has more or less slighted The Terminal as an odd little lark of a film between such major achievements as A.I. and Munich. It isn’t an entirely unfair label, but the film is thoroughly enjoyable all the same.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) is a man on a mission. He travels from the former Soviet satellite nation of Krakozhia to New York City to fulfill a promise involving a Planter’s Peanut can (more on that later). When he arrives, his passport is rejected, and the Customs head, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), explains that his country has fallen into civil war, and that until the United States recognizes the new Krakozhia, Navorski is a man without a country, unable to travel outside the borders of JFK International Airport. Now, Viktor must bide his time until he can find a way past the borders of the airport. He does so by warming the hearts of all of the other airport workers, bringing caterer Enrique (Diego Luna) and customs officer Dolores (Zoe Saldana) together and charming the cynical janitor Gupta (Kumar Pallana). He even finds love in the form of kindly flight-attendant Amelia (Catharine Zeta-Jones).

Sound corny? Yes. But Spielberg injects his usual warm-hearted worldview and earns every bit of sentiment. Like Frank Capra (a major influence here), Spielberg is a master manipulator, a man who knows there needs to be real struggle before true uplift can happen. The “little guy vs. the big system” story in The Terminal isn’t entirely successful: it’s sometimes a tad too simplistic for such a major director, and it’s often accompanied by dumb gags. But Spielberg’s compassion for the characters and the smarter, more lightly handled jokes carry the story over its weaker moments.

Capra isn’t the only influence here: Jacques Tati’s classic film Play Time is an acknowledged influence on The Terminal. Spielberg depicts the airport as a living, breathing ecosystem full of life and wonder. This is what Martin Scorsese’s recent Hugo was missing: the train station never felt like a real place, but rather was a clear digital construct. Here, Spielberg shoots one of his most impressive sets, with something happening around ever corner. Spielberg takes this and combines it with Capra sentiment and the energy of old screwball comedies in the vein of Capra’s It Happened One Night or Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby. There’s some new influences, or at least common ground: Spielberg cast Wes Anderson regular Kuman Pallana in a supporting role. Perhaps Spielberg saw Anderson as a weird kindred spirit and a fellow admirer of the same old films.

Viktor is another one of Spielberg’s classic “lost boys” in a fallen world. He has no home and nowhere to go. Initially, he does not understand Dixon when he explains the sitation to him. The camera twirls around him before he even realizes what’s going on; he’s clearly out of his element in a strange and confusing world. When it finally comes to him after he sees a news report on Krakozhia, Victor is full of terror and confusion. He’s all alone. But Viktor is still a terribly clever man (it doesn’t hurt that Hanks is an innately savvy actor). He teaches himself to speak English overnight by reading an English book side-by-side with its Russian(ish) variant. He quickly learns how to play the system and learns the rules of the airport. The locals don’t trust him at first, but as they learn more about him and realize his inner goodness, their defenses are lowered. Viktor is as much a lost boy as he is another E.T., or a less annoying, less self-conscious version of Forrest Gump.

Frank Dixon, meanwhile, is the classic Spielbergian authority figure: selfish, blind to others’ plight, and ultimately untrustworthy. He’s not a terrible man (credit to Stanley Tucci for giving him some inner complexity), and he doesn’t want anything more than to move up in life. Dixon doesn’t want anything to do with Viktor, and he makes it clear that this little guy who “fell between the cracks” had better stay out of his way. He won’t lie to Viktor, but he will pull other dirty tricks to get rid of him, like try to get him to leave the airport illegally or threaten to fire his newfound friends if he doesn’t go home. Frank talks of the civil war in Krakozhia, and how bombs are dropped as human dignities are violated; he either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that he violates Viktor’s dignity. It’s a bit much, but whenever he threatens to veer into cartoon territory, Spielebrg and Tucci pull back on the reins to find the human in Frank again.

Spielberg’s dealings with romance are frequently shaky, but there’s something overwhelmingly sweet about the good-natured relationship between Viktor and Amelia. Zeta-Jones’ charms shine through in her role as a woman whose luck with love hasn’t been the greatest. Suddenly, this charming, friendly stranger comes into her life and briefly sweeps her off her feet. When Viktor gets a temporary job as a construction worker, he uses his skills to build a beautiful fountain for Amelia. It’s an Old Hollywood style romance that’s endlessly charming. That the two don’t end up together is a lovely, bittersweet touch to a relationship that could have been saccharine.

It turns out that Viktor’s promise was to his father, a jazz enthusiast who managed to get 56 of the 57 autographs of his favorite jazz musicians. Viktor has come to America to fulfill his dead father’s dream and find jazz saxophonist Benny Golson. It’s another sweet father-son relationship in Spielberg’s films, but by the time Viktor gets the chance to get the autograph, the film has run out of air. The airport security staff bands together to get Viktor past Dixon after the latter won’t sign a slip that would allow Viktor into New York on a one-day visa now that Krakozhia’s war is over. It’s mostly endearing, aside from one oddly off-kilter bit involving Gupta, but as soon as Viktor leaves the terminal, the film has hit its climax. It goes on for an OK enough ten minutes before Viktor finally, happily says “I’m going home”. In a movie where one location seemed as lively and beautiful as any place in the world, the decision to finally leave it is understandable, but there’s nowhere to go afterwards.

It’s not enough to sink the movie. The Terminal is an undeniably minor film from Spielberg, but it’s also a deeply ingratiating film that approaches the audience with an honest smile and a warm embrace. It’s also a refreshing step back from the thorniness in most later Spielberg fare. Who wouldn’t, after two dark sci-fi films and one enjoyable but often sad film, want to take a breather and spend some time in a mostly kind-hearted world like this? Spielberg did, and it served as a light snack before two major, challenging films the next year: War of the Worlds and Munich.

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