Memo to: Steven Spielberg, Hollywood, CA Re: The Terminal
Steve ... babe ... I’m a little bit worried about you.
Yeah, I know, no director in the last 30 years has better combined artistic respect with commercial success. Two Oscars, billions in worldwide box office. Boo-hoo, we should all have such problems.
But something’s happened to your movies—or, more to the point, something hasn’t happened. When you started getting serious a decade or so ago, with Schindler’s List, we all thought it marked a new stage of your career—a transition from childlike wonder to gritty pragmatism. So what if Jurassic Park came out the same year. From now on, things would be different.
Well, they sort of are. You still make prestige movies, but you also make a Lost World for every Amistad, a bouncy Catch Me If You Can for every gritty Saving Private Ryan. Palate-cleansers, I guess you’d call them. There were hints in A.I. and Minority Report that you were going to be able to integrate your incomparable gifts as a fanciful storyteller with a harder edge when necessary, but we still needed a real test.
The Terminal should have been that test, and I can visualize a scenario where you aced it. You’ve got Tom Hanks—your old pal from Ryan and Catch Me—playing Viktor Navorski, a visitor to New York from the fictional Eastern European nation of Krakozhia. You’ve got a sly high-concept premise from screenwriter Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show) about how Viktor—after a coup in his country during his flight effectively makes his homeland non-existent—gets caught up in a bureaucratic immigration netherworld where he’s allowed neither to enter the United States nor to return home. And so you’ve got the crazy scenario of Viktor forced to live for days, weeks, months in an unused corner of JFK Airport’s international terminal, trying to survive while the flustered customs supervisor (Stanley Tucci) tries to figure out some way to make him go away.
There’s plenty of crowd-pleasing stuff that comes out of that crazy scenario. Hanks does his appealing everyman thing to perfection, improvising ways to make money or turn waiting area chairs into a bed. Tucci’s a great seething heavy, and you still have that underappreciated sense of comic timing that generates the big, hearty laughs. People are gonna love a lot of this movie.
But Steven, you’re too worried about making them love it. There’s an allegory buried in here somewhere—it’s an Andrew Niccol concept, so it couldn’t be otherwise—about life in the age of Homeland Security, about immigrants who are welcome only when they’re invisible, and under suspicion when they’re not. Even Viktor’s custodian friend Gupta (Kumar Pallana) has internalized this sensibility, demanding an appointment for anyone who wants to look through his trash. Loopholes, dark green forms vs. light green forms—this is the stuff of a tone that needs to be a little bit angry.
Instead, we get the funny little antics of Viktor’s makeshift family of service personnel, including playing Cyrano for one pal’s crush on an INS agent (Zoe Saldana). We get Catherine Zeta-Jones as an unlucky-in-love flight attendant, becoming a romantic interest for Viktor only because it seems obligatory that he has one; we have a hero in Viktor whose innocence and goodness are so complete that there’s nowhere for the character to go. And when we finally come to understand Viktor’s mission in America, it seems to have far too little to do with his plight. It’s warm and it’s fuzzy and it’s completely disconnected from any ideas the movie might originally have had in its head. This is you, Steven, unable to connect your instincts as an entertainer with your sense of right and wrong.
I’m not saying being the entertainer isn’t a great thing. The Terminal is funny and pleasant a lot of the time; it’s also tepid and lacking momentum. I’d love to see you give something like this a kick beyond its potential as whimsy, but then I look at the next two projects you’ve got lined up: a drama about the 1972 Munich Olympics tragedy, and Indiana Jones IV. Come on, Steven—being versatile doesn’t mean being bipolar.
THE TERMINAL, **.5, Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Rated PG-13