Review: The Terminal

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Andrew Niccol, Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Zoe Saldana, Barry, Shabaka Henley, Kumar Pallana, Diego Luna
Released: 2004 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: USA / IMDB
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Steven Spielberg’s wife Kate Capshaw won’t allow her husband to make comedies. Or so he says. You look at the director’s career to date and comedy only really features as the lighter tones of fantasy and adventure. If indeed Capshaw denies Spielberg comedy because of his indifferent efforts on 1941, you’d forgive her for her concern. But if The Terminal is anything to go by, Spielberg should make comedy films more often.

Not billed by the studio or the director himself as a straight comedy, The Terminal is however the director’s funniest film. It’s a delightfully whimsical fish-out-of-water tale starring a spirited Tom Hanks, who brings the plight of stateless Viktor Navorski to life with a sort of vigour he’s rarely shown seen the 1980s. Although the film gently probes immigration and the allure of America in a post 9/11 world, it remains upbeat by concentrating on Viktor’s colourful attempt to integrate himself into his new world.

There’s a lovely moment when Viktor, having been in the airport for several weeks, meets a business traveller in the restroom whilst shaving. “Ever feel like you’re living in an airport?”, the businessman says, to which Viktor just looks at him with Spielberg holding the moment for a precious few seconds and a sustained laugh. The film sees Spielberg having a little fun, and that comes across through the story and the performances. Yep, Catherine Zeta-Jones is tolerable in this movie!

the terminal steven spielberg comedy tom hanks
“Amelia, would you like an eat to bite?”

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The Terminal concerns the story of Viktor Novorski (Tom Hanks) who finds himself confined to the airport terminal after his country (the fictional Krakozhia) enters civil war. Because the USA won’t recognise his country due to the military coup Viktor can neither be deported or offered refugee status. Therefore, he sets up his new home, making friends with the various airport employees and earning enough to buy food by rounding up stray baggage trolleys. There’s a tug of war between Viktor and Immigration Officer Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who grows increasingly wearisome of his new acquaintance’s antics and the fact he’s powerless to remove the airport’s live-in guest. Viktor also becomes enamoured by hostess Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), while helping the shy catering driver Enrique (Diego Luna) woo security administrator Delores (Zoe Saldana).

In many ways the story is more concerned with the affect Viktor has on others than with his own personal plight. The reason he took the trip in the first place is not revealed until much later in the film, so his integration into the standards of this new overtly commercial culture acts like a mirror to the audience questioning what we take for granted. As he learns more English and becomes accustomed to MacDonald’s meals and working as a cash-in-hand contractor for the company outfitting a new terminal building, Viktor becomes a mainstay in the lives of the airport employees. That he helps two find love; one discover her dependency on men should not dictate her life; another to open up about a decade old crime that must be paid for in order for him to go home and see his family again, is the sort of thing fairy tales are made of. And in many ways, The Terminal is a modern day fairy-tale, a piece of fantasy born out of a real life situation.

It’s clear why the story took Spielberg’s fancy – for one thing it plays a clear tune to his favoured sensibilities (an innocent, conventionally ordinary character coming to terms with a strange new circumstance) as well as been sugar-coated and warm-hearted. Admittedly, The Terminal is sentimental but it works because it never hides its optimism. Spielberg set out to make a film that could entertain a mainstream, undemanding audience with comedy, romance and a little tragedy. He has achieved that brief with flying colours.

tom hanks the terminal film steven spielberg
“Ever feel like you’re living in an airport?”

Yet, crucially, The Terminal is the funniest film Steven Spielberg has ever made. It’s proof, if we every needed it, that the master of suspense and high-concept science-fiction can also tackle straight-forward comedy with a vibrancy and charm you don’t see in Minority Report or Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg is aided by a brilliant Tom Hanks whose caricature of an eastern European everyman is cartoonish without being offensive. It seems such a long time since we last saw Hanks play for laughs rather than Oscars and it’s wonderful to see. I also loved John Williams’ score for the movie, certainly one his best for Spielberg – he’s another who seems to be having fun with the material, and he provides an understated composition that has little titbits of melancholy amidst frequent joy.

The Terminal is bound to irk Spielberg’s detractors who see his films as various shades of sentimental optimism. The film is at the upper end of the spectrum – it’s rose-tinted and good-hearted and leaves dramatic realism at the door for other filmmakers to probe. With a wonderful score from Spielberg regular John Williams, and a spirited Tom Hanks, The Terminal is a crowd-pleasing charm offensive from a director who has found his less serious side.

Review by Daniel Stephens

4 stars out of 5

Reviewed as part of Steven Spielberg Week on Top10Films

Discover More:
James Berardinelli’s film review…a fine, enjoyable, uplifting fantasy…
Piddleville’s reviewIt’s simply a marvelous movie…
Choking on Popcorn’s reviewSpielberg pur sang, and like his previous three flicks not a bad thing…
Harry Sheehan’s reviewIt gives Spielberg an opportunity to display a sophisticated sense of physical comedy…
Cinema Blend’s reviewSpielberg shoots Viktor lovingly, a forgotten traveler going nowhere while everyone else is going somewhere…
The Oscar Guy’s review…a mix of carefully executed emotional scenes surrounded by humorous fish-out-of-water moments…

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I always enjoyed The Terminal, and along with you Dan, thought Zeta-Jones was tolerable (Surprisingly) in this!!!

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    Thomas Reply

    Zeta-Jones is always tolerable as long as she … sorry… does not talk or try to act. She is very watcheable – and after I read that Zoe Saldano is in this one, I immediately decided to give it a try. I think it might be the only Spielberg movie other than Sugarland Express that I have not seen yet. Thanks for the recommendation!

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    Bill Reply

    I think part of Spielberg’s initial fascination with this movie was the challenge of the set: an airport they constructed for the film. It was inspired by the complex set of Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” which was notable for its size. I think Tati pretty much went broke doing it.

    I think you’re right calling The Terminal a fairy tale. That may be why I love this movie. I also love Stanley Tucci’s “Frank” character. I think Tucci gives a subtler performance than most people notice. He’s not quite the bad guy he appears. Or maybe I’m just reading something into it …

  4. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Rodney/Thomas: Unfortunately Catherine Zeta-Jones does talk in this one. I think she’s also trying to act. But thankfully there’s a lot more going on and when she does appear she isn’t really extended beyond playing a version of herself. So, as I said, she’s tolerable! 🙂

    @Bill: Thanks for the comment Bill. I agree that Spielberg was interested in the film because of the location but unlike some single location films the airport is such a vast and diverse building it didn’t feel like the director was constrained by a limited locale. But I do love how the film is told almost entirely from inside the airport. Perhaps the film could have gone up another notch had Spielberg decided to never leave the terminal, and devised a different way for Tom Hanks’ character to satisfy his quest.

    I too thought Tucci was great. A very good actor.

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    Gustavo Reply

    I tend to agree with the reviewer’s opinion here. The film works well within its own prmeises and never tries to be more than what it is: a sentimental rom-com – and a pleasant one at that.

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    Castor Reply

    Such a charming and likable little movie and probably one of the most overlooked film in Steven Spielberg’s career. It was nice to see him stray away from his usual action/adventure blockbuster for this unpretentious film.

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    rtm Reply

    I quite enjoy this film, it has its charm, but by no means a GREAT film. Hanks’ over the top accent bugs me at times, too. Btw, anyone noticed Zoe Saldana in this? I hardly recognized her now, but when I saw Avatar I kept thinking that girl looks familiar.

  8. Pingback: The Terminal (Steven Spielberg 2004) « Cine-Blog

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    Thomas Reply

    well, I tried… but no, that’s not my piece of cake… Stanley Tucci’s acting and Zoe Saldana’s looks make it still two hours not wasted 😉

  10. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    Nothing’s wrong with rom-coms, just shite ones like…anything with Katherine Heigl (with the exception of Knocked Up).

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    MovieGeek Reply

    There are some truly beautiful moments in this film. However no comedy should ever be longer than 100 minutes and this one becomes a little bit too indulgent towards the end.
    As often (especially in the last few years) Steven doesn’t know when to stop.

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