» Movies » Arresting, bittersweet, but full of loopholes

Arresting, bittersweet, but full of loopholes

By Arthur J Pais
June 18, 2004 15:47 IST
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Tom Hanks in The TerminalSteven Spielberg's arresting, bittersweet comedy about an alien stranded at New York's John F Kennedy airport could be a runaway hit, but the superbly acted and energetically narrated film is let down by a script with big plot holes, and a silly, over-the-top ending.

Unlike many summer movies with bloated budgets that lose box-office clout in the second or third week, Spielberg's The Terminal will have a prolonged life. The film's arrival, in a way, kicks off the Oscar nomination race at least for acting.

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Tom Hanks, who has demonstrated his gift to get under the skin of a variety of characters over the years, commands the attention from the very first scene in which he haltingly announces his name to the immigration authorities. Among the rest of the mostly impressive cast, none is more intriguing and colourful than Kumar Pallana (Gupta Rajan), who plays the grumpy but kind hearted airport janitor.

At 85, Pallana, who was terrific in The Royal Tenenbaums two years ago, exudes more energy than someone who is 60. He also has many scene-stealing moments in the new film, especially in the sequence when Tom Hanks is nudged by his three airport buddies, including Gupta, to have a date. The entire dream-like sequence, which lasts for about ten minutes, is not only charming but also heartfelt. It is a major highlight of the film and has been superbly directed.    

The film is inspired by the real life story of a man who was stranded at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for over 15 years because of red tape and who had no courage to leave the terminal after having created his little world there.

A still from The TerminalIn Spielberg's film, Victor Navorski is stranded because just as he arrives his fictional, small country of Krakozhia, has suffered a coup.

His visa is cancelled and the State Department refuses to recognise the new government, and flights home are grounded until the fighting ends. Navorski is a man without a country.

The chief security officer Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) is an over-ambitious and liberally devious man. Unable to allow Navorski into America but also unable to deport him, Dixon lets him into the international transit lounge until the war is over.

The well-dressed Navorski seems to have no money (one of the many holes in the scripts). As the red tape makes him a prisoner within the airport, he has to live on the food coupons given by airport authorities. He also has to use his cunning and resourcefulness to make a temporary living that would go on for many months. Some of his escapades are funny and heart-touching, and Hanks goes through them with restraint, producing a delicate performance that soon becomes the soul of the film.

Soon, we also realise that the film isn't just about a stranded alien. It is a quick examination of the humanity from across the globe that has made America its home. 

The story becomes more complicated when Dixon devices means to get rid of Navorski but fails. Meanwhile, a chance meeting leads to a blossoming romance between Navorski and Amelia Warren, the unlucky-in-love flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones). A thinly written character, Amelia is played with little insights by Zeta-Jones.

Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Steven SpielbergIt is even difficult to accept that Navorski, who is shrewd in his own way, is smitten by Warren who seems to be a person without depth or serious feeling.

As the romance goes through a big jolt, Navorski is being blackmailed by Dixon now hell bent on getting him out of the airport. After an overdrawn and utterly unbelievable climatic scene, Navorski gets a chance to visit New York. But the film doesn't end. For there is a little mystery in the jug that Navorski has been carrying. And though, by now, the film seems to have dragged a bit too much, its last few scenes are utterly believable and heartfelt.

The film derives considerable appeal from the scenes involving two other airport workers apart from Gupta. Baggage handler Mulroy (Chi McBride), who holds frequent card games to divide up unclaimed luggage, is delightful. So is the food service worker Enrique (Diego Luna), who exchanges food with Navorski for his help in promoting a romance. Enrique is crazy about an immigration officer Delores (the ravishing Zoe Saldana). He knows that Viktor visits her daily in the hope that she will stamp his paperwork to get into the city 'approved'.

And then there is the tough-looking airport officer Ray Thurman (Barry Shabaka Henley, a major delight in the film), who slowly grows sympathetic to Viktor's plight and plays a dramatic part in Navorski's release from the airport.

But many of the film's finer moments and solid performances are marred by the script. 

Among the many inconsistencies in the scripts: Navorski's inability to understand many things English changes from time to time, adding yet one more unrealistic touch to the film.

But if movie fans can suspend their disbelief considerably, there is plenty to be enjoyed in the film that could become a far bigger hit abroad. Anyone who had to wait several hours at an international airport or face immigration officials will be connected to the movie in no time. It may not be possible for us to go through a major international airport hereafter without wondering what kind of dramas are unfolding.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Barry Shabaka Henley and Kumar Pallana
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson, based on a story by Andrew Niccol and Gervasi
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief language and drug references
Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures

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Arthur J Pais