Sublimities in transit

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 Krakozhia, 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 going at the terminal, neither can he be made to go away.

Whereupon director Steven Spielberg sums up the situation with a patented tour-de-force shot. Viktor walks through the International Arrivals concourse to the verge of its public core and stops; then the camera cranes back and up, pulling away from our central character - and very identifiable star - as hundreds of travelers and airport personnel teem through several layers and at least an acre of glass-walled corridors, gift shops, bookstores (Borders!) and grab-a-bite eateries, till only a sheer act of will enables us to keep track of where Viktor's dim, distant and helpless figure stands.

Technically, the shot is impeccable, its definition of Viktor's situation clear. It can even claim an extra dimension of validity in that its teeming multifariousness appears to have been achieved without recourse to that bugaboo of present-day filmmaking, computer-generated imagery. All those people, all those spaces, were really there to be photographed by Janusz Kaminski's camera. Not that Spielberg and Kaminski took their equipment to the real JFK and interrupted thousands of people's business (and compromised homeland security) in order to lose Tom Hanks in a sea of commingled "atmosphere people" and real travelers. No, keeping faith with the spirit of Old Hollywood, Spielberg commissioned, built and choreographed a JFK of his own.

Which brings us to the limits of "The Terminal"'s effectiveness and the source of its considerable and evolving charm. The film isn't just a parable of the perils of statelessness and the crushing power of bureaucracy. It's a meditation on - and a specimen of - the ways in which life keeps resolving into a media event.

Virtually the whole of "The Terminal" transpires in the enclosed environment/artifact from which, in best Kafkaesque tradition, it takes its name. Viktor arrives speaking and comprehending no English and prepared to communicate only via a few jotted-down formulae ("Tek me to Ramada Inn, wohn-seexty-wohn Lixingtone ... Kip the chenj"). 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. Even here he is limited to grainy, caught-on-the-run video images; the narration is meaningless (and, 24-hour cable news being what it is, contains scarcely more information for the anglophone viewer), and the never-ending crawl at the bottom of the screen yields nothing but periodic occurrences of the word KRAKOZHIA, each iteration reconfirming and deepening his dread.

Other monitors, promo screens from the travel industry, bring him the New York that is only a few miles away yet in another dimension. Broadway shows loom large among the enticements (though not "Ketts" - i.e., "Cats" - whose closing has robbed Viktor's worldview of yet another certitude). It's no strain to accept that when Viktor begins to examine his new environment for clues how to survive, he fixes upon a magazine spread that is part of the long, compulsively observed run-up to the shutting-down of the television series "Friends" - and pulls out his own Krakozhian-language edition to begin learning English on a word-to-word basis. (In honorable line of descent from Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - in which a series of transgalactic tones in a peculiar rhythm were translated into chant, music, phonetic symbols, light, colors and finally spacecraft dancing on air - "The Terminal" will move toward its final resolution by way of a magazine copy of a photograph that sums up a musical tradition and also, in a sense, America.)

"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. The production design's layers of glass on glass and the airport's resemblance to a shopping mall ensure that there are plenty of opportunities for being distracted with dream projections of hearts' desires. Early on, a sliding, translucent VIP-lounge door restricts Viktor to only tantalizing glimpses of the biggest of big-screen monitors displaying images of his country. But later, as Viktor has begun to master the currency of survival in his artificially contrived environment, he enjoys the luxury of studying his own reflection "wearing" the various costumes on display in the window of a clothing boutique.

Images are also power. The terminal is vast, yet Frank Dixon's surveillance system sees everywhere and every intimate, as well as anonymously public, thing. But as Dixon becomes fixated on Navorski - whose inconvenient presence begins to complicate Frank's own dreams of advancement and escape from the terminal - the bureaucrat himself resolves into a kind of cyber-frieze of demonic, near-black-and-white light and shadow behind a sheen of glass. And when Dixon tries, man to man and then longer-range, to nudge Viktor out the exit doors and out of his thinning bureaucratic hair, the surveillance camera craning its gooseneck to follow the foreigner's movement suddenly brings him into Frank's face, as it were, huge and on every monitor around the room: "I wait!" Viktor vows, the brush-off phrase Frank used in their first interview coming back to taunt him.

In its prodigal wealth of impeccably counterfeited real-life detail, "The Terminal" achieves a kind of superreality. The intriguing and satisfying thing is that, having done so - easy meat for a film director who's also his own mogul - it generously evolves beyond that. Those huge jets taxiing or just functionally traversing outside the terminal's windows don't always look as real as they easily might with today's cinematic technology. The always-under-construction corners and peripheries of the terminal - permanently impermanent facts of airport life as we know it - are key to Viktor's ability to make himself a home in a zone designed to be transitory, and to achieve advancement there. 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; 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: in the early scenes, this quintessential American guy gets a whole lexicon of bewilderment, desperation, wishful ingratiation and raddled serenity into nuanced repetitions of the word "Yes" - and he somehow holds his face like a Slav!)

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. Queen Anne News / Magnolia News, June 23, 2004[[In-content Ad]]