Movie review: 'The Terminal'

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3-1/2 stars (out of 4)

Steven Spielberg's new movie "The Terminal" is a shining big-studio gem with a not-too-catastrophic flaw.

This lovable but over-stretched charmer--with star Tom Hanks playing Viktor Navorski, a good-hearted Eastern European traveler trapped in the international lounge of New York City's JFK airport--is beautifully acted and expertly crafted, another Spielbergian technological marvel. But there's something missing in the story, which, a bit puzzlingly, tends to ignore the possible effects of today's omnipresent tabloids and nonstop TV cable news--even though this is a story you'd expect to see popping up on the networks, CNN and Fox News sooner or later. For some audiences, that silence may obscure some of the sparkle.

I hope it doesn't. The movie is a delight in many ways: an unabashed romantic comedy and Capraesque fable that takes Spielberg into realms he's rarely traveled before.

The director of "E.T." and "Schindler's List" has long specialized in fantasies, science fiction and adventure films--movies suffused with a childlike wonder and a love of classical movie conventions. But one convention he's tended to avoid is classic romantic comedy, here in the hands of Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Hanks' Navorski is from mythical Krakozhia and gets stuck in JFK when his government is overthrown, leaving his visa invalid and his diplomatic status in limbo. Snarled in airport protocols, he spends a night in the International Lounge--a sojourn that then stretches from days to months.

Adding to the problem is the rigid attitude of the airport's new security chief, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), a guy with a computer brain and a well-masked heart. At first, Dixon tries to trick Viktor into leaving; then, with the not-unsympathetic aid of his chief cop Thurman (Barry Shanbaka Henley), he all but imprisons the reluctant Krakozhian in the lounge. There, Viktor survives by returning baggage-carts (for a quarter deposit), eating crackers and ketchup and later becoming an under-the-table crack airport worker.

Dixon is not necessarily a bad guy, simply an expert technician serving harsh policies. But he comes to regard Viktor as a nemesis, less a real security risk than a potential career-wrecker.Still, Viktor wins JFK friends: the charming flight attendant Amelia Warren (Zeta-Jones) and three airport employees--baggage handler Joe Mulroy (Chi McBride), food service guy Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna) and janitor Gupta Rajan (Kumar Pallana)--who become his steadfast allies.

There's an emotional link between this movie and Capra's classic American anthem "It's a Wonderful Life." Both films portray American cross-section communities redeemed and renewed by one person's goodness.

If Capra showed us the quintessential small town American populace, Spielberg draws a more transient community of travelers and airport workers. Viktor, the movie's Jimmy Stewart, doesn't even intend to stay in America, but merely fulfill a promise made to his late, jazz-loving father.

It's easy to see what's good about "The Terminal." The actors, beginning with Tucci, Zeta-Jones and the Chaplinesque Hanks, give rich, full-bodied performances--right down to the smaller roles, especially 85-year-old Pallana as the irascible janitor. The technical achievement is remarkable too, including production designer Alex McDowell's amazing reconstruction of JFK, Spielberg's dead-on staging of the usual airport background hubbub and first-rate contributions of editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams (showing his jazzier side).

But it's also easy to spot the flaw. Scriptwriters Sacha Gervasi ("The Big Tease") and Jeff Nathanson ("Catch Me If You Can") are great at imagining the routines of airport life. But they simply neglect questions many will want at least touched. Why doesn't some governmental agency or pressure group express an interest in this situation? And where is the media, which you'd expect to make Alex's plight a tabloid-cable TV news wonder? That's a real missed opportunity for sharp satire and social comment.

Like Viktor though, "The Terminal" doesn't squander many other opportunities. Even if it didn't convince me 100 percent, it stirred my heart. And it's not at all an uncritical fable; one of the movie's targets is the modern-day fortress mentality of some current politicos, their amnesia about the fact that the United States is a melting pot. Spielberg, as you'd expect, is on the side of internationalist America, the "shining city" instead of the airport lounge-prison. Suspend disbelief for a while, and you'll enjoy his anthem--and his romance.

"The Terminal"

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson; photographed by Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; production designed by Alex McDowell; music by John Williams; produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Spielberg. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday, June 18. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: PG-13.
Victor Navorski - Tom Hanks
Amelia Warren - Catherine Zeta-Jones
Frank Dixon - Stanley Tucci
Mulroy - Chi McBride
Enrique Cruz - Diego Luna
Gupta Rajan - Kumar Pallana
Officer Torres - Zoe Saldana
Benny Golson - Himself

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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