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The Terminal (2004)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Life is waiting.”

The story in this movie is a modern fable. It invokes a sense of the mythic rather than giving a “true story” feel. However the movie’s story, from Andrew Niccol (who also wrote The Truman Show and Gattaca), is based on situations that could easily happen in our real world. If they did, I suspect actual events would turn out far worse than those in this film. The gentleness which pervades the movie is part of its mythic character.

The movie begins by showing an airport terminal (JFK in NYC) and the employees of U.S. Custom and Border Protection. (This is an actual division of the Department of Homeland Security whose motto is: ”Protecting our Borders Against Terrorism.” Of course, their web site encourages you to “report suspicious activity.”). In the movie, they appear to be humorless cops behind counters.  

Into their queuing area comes Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) a traveler from an eastern European (fictional) country: Krakozhia. His passport doesn’t pass muster and fails to get him past the first line of customs agents. Agent Mulroy (Chi McBride) comes to the assistance of the customs agent working Viktor's queue. He attempts some communication with Victor. However, at this point in the movie Viktor does not speak very much English. Although he does know a few words, he does not truly understand an English conversation.

Mulroy takes Viktor to meet his superior Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). With Frank’s introduction the level of officiousness rises considerably, which should be expected as he is an ambitious mid-level manager in a federal bureaucracy. Frank and Mulroy attempt to explain that Krakozhia’s government has undergone a coup and the new regime has not been recognized by the United States. Viktor cannot enter the USA since his passport is no longer valid, but he cannot return to Krakozhia either because of the indeterminate status of the entire situation. He must stay in the airport terminal until things clear up or in some other way his status changes from “unacceptable.” Frank gives him some meal vouchers, a phone card and a few other items and turns him loose in the terminal.

Almost immediately, while attempting to help another traveler, Viktor loses the vouchers to a janitor, Gupta Rajan (Kumar Pallana), who is cleaning the area. After a period of eating catsup and saltine “sandwiches,” Viktor discovers a method of earning a living within the parameters of the terminal environment. As soon as Dixon discovers Viktor’s entrepreneurship, he "nationalizes" Viktor’s business by creating a new government position that takes over Viktor’s way of earning enough to feed himself better. It becomes very plain that Frank Dixon’s purpose is to goad Viktor into breaking the immigration law, so that he will be sent to prison and removed from the terminal.

Eventually, Viktor also meets Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a flight attendant who comes through the terminal regularly. Viktor and Amelia develop a friendship.

The Terminal uses a very specific and unusual situation as a microcosm to make perceptive criticisms of American society. A scene later in the film involving another eastern European traveler, in which Viktor acts as a translator, epitomizes just how messed up life in Amerika is. As an agent of the State, Frank Dixon provides a capsule version of what is skewing American society. Stanley Tucci is almost as dislikable playing Dixon, as Tom Hanks is admirable in his role as Viktor. Spielberg's direction is masterful.

Later in the film we learn more of Viktor’s ultimate quest in coming to America. This also adds to the mythic character of the film. The Terminal is an enjoyable movie which has much to say about how America has lost its way and perhaps even hints, through Viktor’s patience and independence, at how that way can be rediscovered.

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