Sublimities in transit: Steven Spielberg dreams another American Dream

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) is in a bad place.

Flying into an airport that is never referred to as JFK even though that's what it must be, he has traveled from his homeland of Krakozia, a suppositional satellite of the former Soviet Union, to New York City, U.S.A., on a personal, undisclosed mission. Unbeknownst to Viktor, while his plane was in the air his country has been whisked out of diplomatically accredited existence by a small, messy yet effective revolution. Hence he finds himself in an intractable limbo between the debarkation gate and the portals to America.

His passport is invalid, his return plane ticket useless. He can't go on; he can't go back. Inconveniently for the beleaguered bureaucrat, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), charged with monitoring international comings and goings at the terminal, neither can he be made to go away.

The film isn't just a parable of the perils of statelessness and the crushing power of bureaucracy. It's a meditation on the ways in which life keeps resolving into a media event.

Viktor arrives speaking and comprehending no English . He hasn't a clue what the airport authorities are trying to tell him about events in his country; he gets that only through horrorstruck attention to the CNN monitors around the lobby.

"The Terminal" portrays a reality-system in which media plays a key role in defining and controlling access to real-world experience. The film is also a reality-system of its own, in which things, and even people, sometimes translate into images.

In its prodigal wealth of impeccably counterfeited real-life detail, "The Terminal" achieves a kind of superreality.

Viktor is able to impose his own vision on the place. And so when, for instance, he (with the assistance of new, mostly fellow-immigrant friends on the airport staff) contrives a private dining patio for the occasion of dinner with a luminous-American-girl flight attendant he has charmed (Catherine Zeta Jones), this art-directed corner of reality looks not only concocted but confected, the nocturnal vastness of the tarmac outside taking on the spun-sugar glow of a candy store.

"The Terminal" seems to be getting a bit of a brush-off itself from many in the press corps; director Steven Spielberg is so deft a filmmaker, such a master of charm and lightness of touch, that reviewers often lazily take deftness for glibness and lightness of touch for lack of substance. This is silly, sloppy and fundamentally ungrateful. (The same goes for underrating Tom Hanks, whose genius is as awesome as it is affable.)

The film's air of fairy tale or fable belies a deeply shrewd talent for seeing beyond expectation, whether in terms of Viktor's capacities for coping with his many challenges or the movie's own beguiling textures. A latino food-service worker (Diego Luna) smitten with a Latina passport clerk (Zoƫ Saldana) inveigles Viktor into playing a combination Cyrano-John Alden for him while he remains "a man of mystery" on the periphery. Sometime later Viktor characterizes his friend to the clerk as "a man of misery"; after a moment, she - along with us - works out what the phrase should be and smilingly corrects Viktor. No, he smiles with patient understanding: "man of misery." Viktor's language skills have been growing subtler than we self-congratulatingly realized, and his people skills, too. The same can be said of "The Terminal."

Viktor Navorski, when all is said and done, is in a good place.[[In-content Ad]]