“What is the purpose of your visit?”
Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK Airport full of hope. Clutching a can of Planters Nuts, he trundles up to the customs desk and waits patiently to be processed. At that moment, amid the shuffling chaos of the terminal—lines upon lines of people waiting just like him—Viktor’s status changes. Krakozhia, his made up Eastern European nation, is annihilated, legally speaking, by a coup and subsequent ongoing civil warfare. And Viktor is pronounced “unacceptable,” a man without nation, identity, or status.
All this occurs at the start of The Terminal, without Viktor’s knowledge—at least at first—as the television news reports on the crisis in his beloved homeland, visible with ticker-updates on monitors all over the international terminal, are in English. Apprised of his sudden lostness, Viktor still doesn’t quite comprehend, assuming that the smiling faces hovering behind desks mean him no harm. “Yis, yis, yis,” he agrees, to whatever they might be saying. Not incidentally, the fact that Viktor’s language is also made up has at least two effects: it eliminates his exact likeness to anyone on this planet, as if he’s another E.T.; and it abstracts Viktor’s quite dire, quite immediate circumstance, one that might resemble that of any number of refugees, were it not the subject of a Spielberg fantasy. As the director reflects in the press notes, “I don’t think any human being who has ever been to a land where they don’t speak the language—or even if they do—has not felt that complete disenfranchisement.”
While this generalization may not hold exactly (people with money do tend to have experiences different from those who don’t), Viktor’s disenfranchisement is, initially, quite complete. When uniforms are unable to make clear to him that he is identity-less, which translates to his being confined to the terminal until further notice, he meets with the man who will become his most intimate and relentless adversary, security chief Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). To be fair, for a minute, Frank’s U.S.-policy-holding situation is not precisely easy: “The country’s detaining so many people,” he snarls, “there’s no goddamn room anywhere.”
Informed that he can’t leave the terminal, Viktor makes do. He assembles a living area at an unfinished gate, learns English using Fodor’s guides purchased at Borders, and collects luggage carts to retrieve quarters, spent at Burger King, under the benevolent gaze of Starbucks or Swatch store employees (conspicuous product placement establishing the consumer culture overload of this international neverland). Their opposition is precise and convenient: Viktor earns the respect of the airport’s legions of underpaid, overqualified, put-upon service workers. And Frank adopts a little martinet posture, fidgeting and frowning as he instructs his underlings (including sad-faced Barry Shabaka Henley) to restrict Viktor in any way they can, inspiring their mounting resistance, drib by grumpy drab.
Though Frank would actually like to send Viktor forth from the terminal, to be picked up by some NYC policeman or even a federal agent, Viktor senses the scheme, and, following a brief peek out the front doors, decides to stay until his situation is “resolved.” And so Frank and Viktor are both stuck. As Viktor waits to be pronounced “acceptable,” Frank awaits an inspection team who will allow that his security work (source of this uptight careerist’s identity) is satisfactory. This conflict comes to a sort of head when a “Russian” immigrant, in the terminal during the inspection, goes berserk when informed that he can’t transport pills home to his father. Viktor is called in to translate (apparently, any made up language that sounds like Russian will do), a scene that turns as sentimental and simplistic, as it is initially and more pointedly, absurd.
The struggle between Frank (supreme administrator) and Viktor (man of the people) doesn’t resolve so much as it peters out. But, along with Viktor’s evolving relationship with designated love interest Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), John Williams’ sweepy score, and Janusz Kaminski’s lush cinematography, it makes The Terminal an oddly, almost stubbornly old-fashioned film. This even as it is set during a disconcertingly present moment, that is, post-9/11, when identity papers would seem to be of utmost importance in obtaining (or granting) stability as much as mobility.
Viktor’s particular unmooring is surely bizarre, but it is also symptomatic of a time when corporate reach is increasingly global and, not quite paradoxically, national sensibilities are increasingly paranoid (not to mention racist). Viktor’s white maleness (and really, his Tom Hanksness) makes his situation less immediately fraught and frightening for the audience this film presumes (that is, the audience Spielberg’s films typically presume, that is, middle class, white, U.S.). He looks like an “everyman” in a conventional, unimaginative, Western sense. Viktor is amiable, witty (but not smart-ass), essentially noble, even cuddly. He’s not going to make anyone nervous, as he might if he was, for instance, “Middle Eastern.”
In this context, it’s worth noting that Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay borrows from the real life story of Iranian-born Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who, since losing his papers in 1988, has lived at Charles de Gaulle Airport. (The story has inspired several previous movie versions, one French feature and several documentaries, including a 2001 British mock documentary, Here to Where, in which Nasseri plays himself.) This source material is only instructive in relation to what The Terminal rearranges with regard to race and nationality, in order to avoid the obvious political, cultural, and moral difficulties ordained by current war-on-terror fears in the U.S.
More whimsical than jittery, then, The Terminal might have been a musical, as it deploys slapstick approximating choreography (this courtesy of the glee taken by the Indian janitor Gupta [85-year-old Kumar Pallana] as hurrying travelers slip and go splat on his wet floors). It might also have been a romantic comedy, of the sort where the solid supporting players encourage the protagonist to “be himself” (this would be easier for Viktor if he had a permissible self to be, I suppose). But the film is neither. Rather, and to its credit, it slides between genres and eras, rethinking such categories even as it challenges the idea that identity must be fixed and legible.
What the film does less well is pursue the possibilities it sets up. Once introduced, characters tend to lapse into stereotypes (this is especially the case with Gupta, who juggles and spins plates by way of entertainment for Viktor and Amelia) or “colorful” glosses on Viktor. Most “developed” among the buddies are card-playing airline workers Mulroy (durable Chi McBride) and Enrique (Diego Luna), who never seem to leave the terminal either. (They must, of course, but the film mostly limits itself to Viktor’s restricted experience of the-terminal-as-world, even if it does also allow various views within that world, most ascribed to Frank’s malicious-seeming surveillance cameras—their literal pursuit of Viktor yielding some minor comedy at Frank’s expense.) They invite him to play poker, betting items scarfed from Lost and Found (including “Cher’s panties,” which confound Viktor: “We get to share the panties?”)
While Mulroy is generally left to nod sagely whenever he sees Viktor outsmarting Frank, Enrique is granted a subplot of his own, in that he enlists Viktor’s aid in wooing the girl he can’t even muster the nerve to speak to, INS Agent Dolores Torres (Zoë Saldana). She and Viktor interact daily, as she repeatedly stamps his application to exit the terminal with a big red “DENIED,” and he repeatedly exhibits a pleasant appeal and seemingly infinite patience.
Charming and resourceful, Viktor proves an able courier of questions and answers between the lovers-to-be, even suggesting appropriate gestures of affection. He has the chance to ply his own bit of troth when he meets Amelia, as she is in mid-bad patch with her married lover (Michael Nouri), an attachment that is never motivated aside from her vague assertion that the sex is “great”). The stereotypical nature of Amelia’s ostensible dilemma (flight attendants are always “dating” married men in the movies, hoping for “more” and always disappointed) sets up her metaphorical connection with Viktor—both are in transit and indeterminate, liminal and apprehensive. Both are, as he observes, in case you’ve missed the point, “waiting,” to feel fulfilled, to have a place, to be deemed whole.
For Viktor, this goal is jazz, both metaphorically and literally. Here again, the film is simultaneously reductive and potentially expansive. If, as tradition holds, jazz is “America”‘s generous and brilliantly ever-expansive gift to the world, Viktor both embodies this gift and erases its origins. Inspired by his father’s love of jazz (specifically, his devotion to those artists frozen in time for the “Great Day in Harlem” photo, including Art Blakey, Maxine Sullivan, Bird, Monk, Lester Young, Benny Golson), Viktor represents a passion for art that transcends nation, identity, and time. Such representation is a privilege, and as such, it’s not surprising that it falls to the Tom Hanks character, even in a film so apparently interested in transnational, international, non-white-American compositions.