The limbo man

Times Staff Writer

For someone who is -- as back-to-back best actor Oscars and the AFI Life Achievement Award attest -- arguably the most beloved of modern American actors, Tom Hanks has spent a lot of time recently hiding from himself.

Intent on putting some distance between his image and his most recent screen roles, Hanks’ latest performances include an emotionless killer in “Road to Perdition” and an over-the-top con man in the Coen brothers’ “The Ladykillers.”

The masquerade continues in the Steven Spielberg-directed “The Terminal,” in which Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a heavily accented visitor from Eastern Europe for whom New York’s JFK airport becomes a version of the Eagles’ Hotel California: he can check in, but he is not allowed to leave.

This latest time behind the mask, however, is definitely the charm for Hanks, whose gift for creating sympathetic characters combines with comedy work so delicate, energetic and empathetic it’s reason enough to see “The Terminal” all by itself.


Director Spielberg, of course, has considerable gifts of his own to put on display. He is a master of user-friendly filmmaking, someone whose skilled hands you are happy to be in, a practiced professional who makes polished entertainments like “The Terminal” look considerably easier to turn out than they are.

All of this is certainly enough to make this latest an engaging, consistently amusing diversion. The film, however, has designs on something more, on delivering emotional and even romantic satisfactions, and in this it rather goes off the rails. Though it works diligently toward an emotional payoff, it never manages to close the deal, to deliver the knockout punch that is on its mind.

Certainly it was a shrewd idea, conceived by Andrew Niccol and Sacha Gervasi and written by Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, to set a film like this in an airport. “The Terminal” plays on our shared knowledge of airports as modern torture chambers, places where everyone has spent more hours than they planned on and perhaps, in the far recesses of their minds, feared they would never manage to leave.

(“The Terminal” is in fact apparently inspired by the real-life experiences of an Iranian exile who spent a dozen years unable or unwilling to leave Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport.)


Partially because post-Sept. 11 security constraints would make it difficult to shoot in a real airport and partially because on some level building one seemed like such a satisfyingly Hollywood thing to do, the filmmakers proceeded to do just that.

Working in a hangar in Palmdale, production designer Alex McDowell, who did the future world honors on Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” oversaw the building of a terminal that rose to 60 feet and spread out to nearly 100,000 square feet. Construction employed 200 workers for nearly 20 weeks and resulted in a structure (beautifully photographed by Janusz Kaminski) that is definitely one of “The Terminal’s” stars.

Though this impressive structure, complete with a 31,200-square-foot scenic backdrop, one of the largest ever, is supposed to be JFK’s international transit lounge, McDowell took ideas from several airports, including the use of the click-clacking, split-flap technology for the arrival and departure board that is more characteristic of European airports. And some 35 fortunate retail shops, from Hugo Boss to Brookstone, were allocated product-placement opportunities.

Into this bright and shiny world, intent on visiting Manhattan, comes tourist Viktor Navorski. Unfortunately for Viktor, while he was in the air a military coup upended his country. In the aftermath, his visa was canceled, his passport suspended and he has become, to quote airport immigration official Frank Dixon, “simply unacceptable, a citizen of nowhere.”


Adroitly played by Stanley Tucci, Dixon is the by-the-book bureaucratic foil this kind of fairy tale can’t exist without. Just as Moses was allowed a Mt. Pisgah view of the Holy Land he couldn’t enter, so Dixon allows Viktor to glimpse New York through the airport’s glass doors. For this visitor, however, America is closed until further notice.

This may sound dire, but the name of the country Viktor is from clues you in not to worry. It’s not a real place but Krakozhia, an imaginary land that sounds like the made-up Middle European countries -- Sylvania, Fredonia, Ruritania etc. -- that were the staple of 1930s Hollywood fantasies.

As Viktor gradually settles in to his new home, dealing with everything from finding a place to sleep to figuring out ways to eat, it’s the clever conceit of “The Terminal” to have him duplicate the classic American immigrant, to go through the trials of adjusting to a new and unfamiliar land.

At first, Viktor is the loneliest guy in the world, ignored and unloved, reduced to scrounging meals of ketchup and crackers. But he gradually learns English, meets airport workers (Kumar Pallana’s Gupta is the most memorable) and, most important, figures out how to make the system work for him.


Hanks, with his everyman quality and his marvelous comic abilities, pretty much owns this movie. His uncertain accent and lumbering gait not only help convince us that he is Krakozhia born and bred but also seem to have liberated a kind of ebullient comic energy not seen since the days of “Big.” He throws himself into the film’s comic moments, both familiar and original, with a zest that is contagious. Spielberg says in the press notes that of all the movies he’s done with Hanks, “this was the most inventive I’ve ever seen Tom be on the set,” a statement backed up by what’s on screen.

Though “The Terminal” succeeds in its portrayal of Viktor as a kind of savvy innocent, whenever it tries for deeper emotional connections, it is on less sure ground. The film posits not one but two unlikely potential romances, one that Viktor tries to facilitate between a pair of airport workers (Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana) and one between him and the lovely Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a flight attendant trying to fight a weakness for “ingesting poisonous men.”

Though elements of both relationships are touching, neither one gets us to feel what the film wants us to. Equally unconvincing is the reason, revealed late in the film, that Viktor is visiting New York in the first place.

While lapses like that would prove fatal to another film, there’s only so much they can detract from the burnished professionalism both Hanks and Spielberg demonstrate.


Entertainment like this is too hard to find to second-guess for too long.


‘The Terminal’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief language and drug references


Times guidelines: The tone is sweet and innocent.

Tom Hanks...Viktor Navorski

Catherine Zeta-Jones...Amelia Warren

Stanley Tucci...Frank Dixon


Chi McBride...Mulroy

Diego Luna...Enrique Cruz

Barry Shabaka Henley...Thurman

Kumar Pallana...Gupta Rajan


Zoe Saldana...Torres

A Parkes/MacDonald production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Steven Spielberg. Producers Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Steven Spielberg. Executive producers Patricia Whitcher, Jason Hoffs, Andrew Niccol. Screenplay Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson. Story by Andrew Niccol and Sacha Gervasi. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Editor Michael Kahn. Costumes Mary Zophres. Music John Williams. Production design Alex McDowell. Art director Brad Ricker. Set decorator Anne Kuljian. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

In general release.