Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:08 - Released 6/18/04

When I reviewed Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, a fluffy but likable film which co-starred Tom Hanks, I said that it was vaguely disappointing because, since those two have built such a reputation for excellence, my expectations of them had grown too high. Well, this time there isn’t anything vague about it: I didn’t like The Terminal. Even though it’s based on a true story, even though it features the work of one of the best directors and actors currently employed, and even though it is technically as superior as anything either or both have produced in the past, its script (by Andrew Niccol, Sacha Gervasi, and Catch Me writer Jeff Nathanson) is nothing less than absurd, having been twisted, turned, romanticized, and Hollywoodized to the point of losing all of its based-on-a-true-story charm.

I guess part of my problem is that I made the mistake of watching my new DVD of Schindler’s List, one of my favorite movies of all time, the day before I went to this movie. Seeing the heights of excellence to which Spielberg has soared in the past only emphasized the comparative mediocrity of his latest film. There are so many holes in the plot of this movie, so many ridiculous lapses in credibility, so many poorly drawn, patently unbelievable characters and events, I was appalled almost from the first scene. Even if the general framework of this story really did happen, this retelling is almost entirely preposterous and unbelievable, and the only reason the film achieves a barely passing grade is because of the technical talents exuded by its director, cast and crew. Spielberg has proven himself a genius, and can afford good people, like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, film editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams, but no amount of talent can offset the myriad weaknesses of this script.

The story begins when Viktor Navorski (Hanks), an immigrant from the fictional eastern European country of Krakozhia who is on his way to New York City, is stranded at JFK airport (which, by the way, is re-created in true Spielbergian style down to the last escalator, including arrival/departure monitors, banks of seating, and a fully functional food court and shopping center with numerous name stores and restaurants). As it happens, a war in Viktor’s home country has resulted in a bloody coup and a change of government, and Krakozhia as we know it has ceased to exist, rendering his passport invalid. He is escorted to the office of customs supervisor Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who, despite the fact that Viktor obviously does not understand a word of English, explains to him in a very complicated and rude fashion that he is “unacceptable,” actually exploding a bag of chips from his own lunch all over his own office to illustrate how Viktor’s country has been decimated. Viktor is then turned loose in the airport with strict orders not to leave, while Dixon engages in several ridiculous and borderline illegal plots to entice him to escape so that he’s “somebody else’s problem.”

As days turn to weeks and weeks to months, Viktor takes up residence in a portion of the airport which is supposedly under construction (although no one ever comes to work on it). He makes friends with various airport service personnel, such as a customs clerk (Zoe Saldana) who advises him to fill out the same form every day so that she may make a fresh application of her red “denied” stamp; a trio of baggage handler/custodians (Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Kumar Pallana) who run a regular poker game using items from the Lost And Found department as ante capital; and a comely flight attendant named Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who becomes extremely fond of him despite that fact that she regularly misunderstands his broken English and is engaged in an ongoing affair with a married man. Meanwhile, Viktor manages to eke out a living, first by scrounging quarters, then by striking up a deal with a food service worker, and finally by joining the airport’s construction crew (even though he still doesn’t have a passport, a green card, a work visa, or any form of identification), and makes friends with just about every worker and store owner in the airport’s shopping center, until they all are rooting for him to defy Dixon’s orders and enter the U.S. illegally.

I would think that the customs and security personnel and general management at JFK would be absolutely incensed by this movie, as they are nearly all portrayed as alternately stupid, insensitive, rude, and/or criminal, not to mention generally ineffective at their jobs. Scenes in which the petty and vindictive Dixon watches a security monitor, anxiously hoping for Viktor to walk out the door so that he may contact the authorities, are interspersed with scenes of Viktor using airport construction materials to build himself a virtual apartment (not to mention an extremely ornate and elaborate gift for Amelia), complete with an airport-owned soda vending machine as his own personal refrigerator. Although he is ostensibly portrayed as a good man because he refuses to defy the restrictions placed on him, he is constantly breaking other rules which are inexplicably ignored by the authorities. As usual, Hanks makes us like and empathize with his character despite the textual imperfections which would doom a lesser actor. His performance is certainly likable and believable, although his Russian-esque gibberish is sometimes quite obviously false (especially in the scene where he converses with a man who is actually speaking Russian). But the whole plot of this movie is an elaborate cock-up, a ridiculous attempt at romanticizing a story which, if it had been told truthfully and without embellishment, would probably have been quite engaging.

Incidentally, the real story of Mehran “Alfred” Nasseri, the Iranian refugee who was stranded in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988 and apparently chose to stay there despite subsequently receiving permission to live in Belgium, has indeed been the inspiration for at least two films before, namely the 1993 French comedy Tombés Du Ciel and the 2001 mock documentary film Here To Where (in which Nasseri himself appeared). Although I have not seen either of these films, I’d be willing to bet either is preferable to this version.

I think I’ll go watch Saving Private Ryan. ***

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail