Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Sometimes you have to ignore the rules, ignore the numbers, and concentrate on the people. Compassion, Frank, that’s the foundation of this country.
The early 2000s were formative years for many of us and revisiting the films produced in that era, in the aftermath of 9/11, can be an interesting exercise. There are many failures and embarrassing failed gambits, some remembered more harshly than others. There are also diamonds in the rough that have since come into their own critically. But many of these films are like old friends to whom we return periodically, even ritualistically. Among these films is one which has become something of a yearly event is Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) which has earned its place as an unconventional Christmas film alongside Die Hard (1988) or Gremlins (1984) without the genre flair.
It’s interesting to contrast Spielberg’s work in this period. The devastating treatment of human nature in A.I. (2001) co-created with Stanley Kubrick. A quite dark examination of the failure of institutions to ethically safeguard humanity in Minority Report (2002) followed by the equally cynical though more light-hearted critical look at the security of our national institutions in Catch Me If You Can (2002). In 2005, Spielberg directed The War of the Worlds and Munich perhaps two of his darkest films which offer no easy answers as to the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of collapse and death. These last two films, of course, are preceded by The Terminal, a cute little romantic comedy about Tom Hanks hanging out in an airport with a funny accent. But at its core The Terminal is a deeply optimistic film that positions politics and security as contrary to basic human decency. A film about the strength of willpower that practically states that altruism is impossible without sacrifice. And in the end it’s just a charming feel-good picture that uses Security Theater as its backdrop.
The Terminal tells the story of a man from the fictional nation of Krakozhia named Viktor Navorski (Tom motherfucking Hanks) who spends months trapped at the JFK International Airport in NYC after a coup in his homeland invalidates his visa and passport. Inspired by the true story of Mehran Nasseri who spent 18 years living in Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris as an Iranian refugee unable to be deported due to complications regarding his birthplace (defunct corporate-owned land). The film adds romantic and dramatic elements in the form of a flight attendant love-interest Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who mistakenly identifies Navorski as a kindred spirit and tinpot dictator and customs director Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) who is gunning for a promotion and views the incident with Viktor as a blight on his record. Background characters who work at the airport and become Viktor’s friends round out the cast and provide comic relief (some of whom have since become quite famous).
The ultimate conceit of the film is the unshakable moral conviction possessed by every single character when pressed. Viktor refuses to steal to survive or to illegally escape into New York. Frank refuses to lie by imprisoning Viktor under false pretenses. Amelia even urges her philandering boyfriend to seek counselling in order to reconcile with his wife. Frank’s quest to solve his Navorski problem drives him away from this path as he becomes increasingly vindictive.
Navorski spends about a year at JFK and during that time he helps orchestrate a romance between food delivery driver Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna) and immigration officer Dolores Torres (Zoë Saldana). Navorski also nabs an under the table construction job at the airport, learns to speak English, and becomes a local folk hero for negotiating the release of Milodragovich (Valery Nikolaev) who is being arrested for smuggling medicine from Canada to Russia intended for his sick father. With the deck stacked against him Navorski displays legendary perseverance and oozes an indomitable sense of human decency thanks to a frankly underrated performance from Hanks. But in the end Navorski is beaten down by the system and is blackmailed into returning home by Frank Dixon following the cessation of the conflict in Krakozhia and Dixon’s promotion.
Two of Viktor’s friends altruistically step in to save him, sacrificing a great deal in the process. Amelia returns to her married lover’s arms after breaking things off and successfully convinces him to pull strings in Washington, D.C. to issue Viktor an emergency one-day visa. Afterwards Gupta Rajan (the late Kumar Pallana), a janitor with a warrant for his arrest in India, throws himself in front of the taxiing jet to Krakozhia, delaying the flight and allowing Viktor to escape. The film’s final scenes are heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure and the tears are sure to flow.
The airport scenes, the snowy exteriors, the rush of gift-giving during the finale, and the paean to “aw, shucks” human decency lends The Terminal the undeniable air of a Christmas film even if the holiday is never mentioned. It may never become required viewing, and remain relegated to being considered one of Spielberg’s minor works, but it will always be a good time at the movies.