The Terminal: Spielberg Goes Back To Comedy

Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Terminal. Courtesy of DreamWorks/Paramount.

The Terminal may not be the top of the line for filmmaker Steven Spielberg but the film still makes for compelling material when viewing.

It’s fascinating to watch The Terminal in 2020, over fifteen years following its theatrical release. So much has and hasn’t changed when it comes to immigration. Because Krakozhia breaks out into civil war during his flight, the United States no longer recognizes the country. Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) basically becomes a man without a country. What this means for Viktor as a traveler is that he can’t return home nor can he enter the United States. A stateless man, Viktor decides to make the airplane terminal his home for the near future. U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary director Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) does what he can and even suggests that Viktor break the law.

Tom Hanks brings so much to Viktor Navorski that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. There’s a solid amount of slapstick comedy but it’s completely in character. Hanks was more than willing to do his own stunts. The character himself has so much thick skin. He isn’t the type to lose patience and wants to help in whichever way he can. Navorski certainly leaves the film having gone on a whirlwind journey of his own. He isn’t in a position to fly home but he can’t leave the airport either. You can’t help but hurt for him since he’s between a rock and a hard place.

While living at the airport, Viktor falls for flight attendant Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Dixon eventually asks Amelia if she knows the real reason why Viktor is in the US. This leads to Viktor showing her the photograph in his Planters can. Nine months later, the war finally ends and Viktor gets his green card. However, Dixon still gives him trouble and even threatens Gupta Rajan (Kumar Pallana) with deportation back to India. The officers working under Dixon have more empathy than he ever will. It’s because of this that The Terminal gets to end on a happy note. On top of this, Viktor and Amelia get one last reunion before he gets the final autograph–more on this later.

DreamWorks previously purchased the rights to Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s life story. Known as Alfred or Sir, Alfred, he has the history of living at an airport in France. Living in an airport is the only similarity between Alfred and Viktor Navorski. If this film were to be made now, one can only thing that there would be more authenticity in terms of casting practices.

Beyond the main cast, there is a solid supporting cast–one that seeks to represent the same diversification that we see daily at the airport. At least in non-pandemic times! The Don Rickles-esque Kumar Pallana steals the show with his performance as Gupta Rajan. Meanwhile, Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Zoe Saldana was a complete unknown when The Terminal was produced. Much of her role sees her interacting with Tom Hanks. Little did we know that we were looking at a star-in-the-making back in 2004.

The legendary composer John Williams also provides an ethnic texture to the soundtrack. Because of this, the clarinet and accordion feature prominently in the film’s soundtrack. This is why he is one of the greats when it comes to scoring movies. Williams knows exactly what a film needs and brings it to the picture. Williams is familiar with everyone pictured in the photograph–all of these household names in the jazz world. A Great Day in Harlem is what brings Viktor to the US. The main goal here is to get tenor saxophonist Benny Golson’s autograph. Goldson the final autograph remaining to complete a collection of 57 musicians.

What is most impressive about the film is that they completely build an airport terminal from scratch. Alex McDowell designed a model on a computer before the set was built for production. Almost all of the set fit inside the hangar they found: 750 feet long and 350 feet wide. The signage is also as close as accurate to what one can find inside JFK in New York. But beyond that, Spielberg found a way to use “every square inch” according to the bonus features.

Steven Spielberg chose to make the film as a reaction to what was happening in the world at the time. If you look at his filmography, it makes perfect sense to make a comedy. Most of his 1990s work consists of serious films with exceptions being Hook and two Jurassic Park films. This theme continues into the early 2000s between the dramas and action films. Where Catch Me If You Can has moments of humor, it is still a drama. If you look at how Spielberg follows the film (War of the Worlds and Munich), the next two are serious films but they also work as his response to the tragedy of September 11th. It would be a few more years before Spielberg returned to the fun adventure films in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The Terminal might not be in the top ten of favorite Steven Spielberg movies but it’s the first of three films that he uses to directly respond to a national tragedy.

DIRECTOR:  Steven Spielberg
SCREENWRITERS:  Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson
CAST:  Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna

DreamWorks opened The Terminal in theaters on June 18, 2004. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.