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SpielBLOG: The Terminal – A Steven Spielberg Retrospective

After all the recent running around of Catch Me If You Can and the chasing of Minority Report, it was perhaps understandable that Steven Spielberg wanted to take breather, but The Terminal is a thumping stop, almost a collapse into feel-good whimsy.

Based on the true story of one Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who stayed in stateless limbo for 18 years in Terminal 1 of Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, France, from 1988 to 2006, Spielberg whitewashes and then spin dries the story of all context. The potential here is fantastic. JG Ballard would have made this into a post-modern Robinson Crusoe, with a man trapped in an endless present of shopping and artificial light, stasis in the midst of accelerated movement. But Spielberg was in no mood for seriousness: ‘I wanted to do another movie that could make us laugh and cry and feel good about the world…. This is a time when we need to smile more and Hollywood movies are supposed to do that for people in difficult times.’

And so instead of Iran, we get the made-up country of Krakozhia and Victor (played with chubby twinkle by Tom Hanks). The airport becomes a Bedford Falls where everyone has a role to play and basic goodness in their hearts just waiting to come out. Victor is an innocent whose status is caused not by his own fleeing from terror but from a civil war that has broken out back home. Stanley Tucci plays the over-zealous customs official who exacerbates the situation and Catherine Zeta-Jones is the flight attendant who Victor falls in love with as their paths repeatedly cross.

Nothing in the film feels real. The airport itself was built inside a huge hanger and the various shops and franchises were provided as one of the bigger product placement deals and woven into the plot. Nothing about the airport feels real. It’s too clean for a start. The way everyone seems baffled by someone who doesn’t speak English! The way Victor manages to make friends with everyone without actually making friends with everyone. It’s like Spielberg wanted to get from A to C but couldn’t be bothered putting in the connective material that would justify it. He needs a big celebratory crowd scene and so here you go. Why those people would care doesn’t get a mention. Victor speaks Bulgarian and learns English by buying an English language edition of the guide book of New York he already has and then comparing them. Why it doesn’t occur to him to buy a ‘Teach Yourself English’ book is not explored.

Now, this is not to say there aren’t moments. There are two or three hilarious prat-falls – and I’m not being facetious, a well-executed prat-fall is a thing of beauty. And Kumar Pallana is always a pleasure to watch. But the film is so obviously pushing the audience’s button, it feels like it’s stabbing them in fact. The romance between the modern woman and old-world Victor never fizzes because it never gets anywhere near those characters. Their relationship is like the film, avoiding the differences that would actually have made for some interesting drama and would have grounded the comedy in some real conflicts. Diego Luna stalks Zoe Saldana’s border cop with Victor’s help in a subplot that is substandard. If not toxic it certainly is a calorific romanticism which pays no heed to people being complicated and having you know, agency, going from crush to clinch with nary a moment in-between.

With the War on Terror in full swing, Spielberg seems to be hoping that the geopolitical horror will simply go away as we envelop ourselves in pleasing mush. And he was right. The film was both a critical and commercial success. And in a way, it advertises itself as a classic Hollywood comedy in the mode of Frank Capra and for that matter Sleepless in Seattle. It is nowhere near as inept as Always. In fact, it is as bright and shiny and slick as any of the other franchises insight, but just as airport food isn’t nourishing and airport novels are rarely deep, so this is an airport movie in the worst way – ultimately I’m just waiting to be somewhere else.

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