Dinner and a Dreamwork

'The Terminal' puts all of American entertainment under one roof

The Great Communicator may have passed, but the Great Rehabilitator--Steven Spielberg--is back in rescue-mission mode. Set entirely at the New York airport where a wannabe tourist (Tom Hanks) from war-torn Krakozhia waits (and shops) without a passport, The Terminal finds the filmmaker who put positive spins on slavery and the Holocaust aiming to save Homeland Security, INS, and the Patriot Act--and protect our Borders. Of course he succeeds once again--at least to the extent that a new movie by the zillionaire conservative who believes he's a progressive iconoclast is always endlessly fascinating. (Or would we rather wrestle with the narrative intricacies of Roland Emmerich and David Twohy?)

The most privileged director on the planet might strain to imagine life for a man who can't travel, but he sure knows his way around Spielbergville. Yet another cute, displaced alien, Hanks's English-deficient Viktor Navorski (his "E.T. phone home," spoken ad nauseam, is "Bite to eat!") takes up residence at Gate 67 of Kennedy International and tests the patience of a promotion-seeking airport official (Stanley Tucci) in a movie that could well be called Keep Me If You Can. Still, Hanks loyalists will have no trouble recognizing the two-time Best Actor--even with an accent that recalls one of Peter Stormare's seemingly strangulated Russian goofballs in a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. Like Forrest Gump, Viktor is alternately slow and swift, innocent and shrewd (the better for Hollywood to play with our various prejudices). And like Cast Away's Chuck Noland, Hanks's Terminal hero proves amazingly resourceful at the end of the line. Spielberg stingily withholds the details of what Viktor is keeping in that rusty old Planters can of his, but he relishes sharing the minutiae of a stranded foreigner's upward mobility. Beginning modestly by trading unreturned luggage carts for quarters (and quarters for Whoppers), Viktor eventually finds himself bidding on a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who gives him bedroom eyes even before seeing him in Hugo Boss.

The joke here--and it's not a bad one--is that the clock-punching, dream-chasing, burger-scarfing man from Krakozhia is living like a real American without ever leaving JFK. (An even better joke would have him living like a real American without ever leaving the airport in Beijing, but whatever.) "America is closed," Tucci's security boss informs the hopeful immigrant. "The only thing you can do here is shop." Is that not enough? Alas, whether in the interests of maintaining "realism" or the competitive edge, Spielberg places even stricter limits on Victor's range of options than the airport gatekeeper does. (Conspicuous consumption of our goods is one thing, the director implies. But our Oscar-winning actresses are only for ogling. Maybe, if you ask nicely, you can get her autograph.) The Terminal does allow that America works for aliens (even when we don't let 'em in!), but it's even more the land of opportunity for Spielberg, whose lavishly constructed airport set--a giant billboard--boasts no fewer than 35 corporate outlets.

Daring to spurn CGI in favor of building something that really pays, the DreamWorker has delivered an old-fashioned movie for the new world after 9/11. "This is a time when we need to smile more," says Spielberg in the Terminal press kit, "and Hollywood movies are supposed to do that for people in difficult times." Indeed, Viktor is practically naturalized by American culture: The big reveal--the interior of our hero's Planters Peanuts tin--has something to do, believe it or not, with the Great Day in Harlem that Art Kane's camera caught back in the day. (Black culture has been a signifier of the mogul's benevolence to Others since before The Color Purple.) Not even old-school audience-builder Jack Valenti could have conceived a more heartwarming vision: Foreign freeloading yields paid admission as the great day in JFK morphs into another night at the movies. Bite to eat, absolutely. But is there a multiplex in this terminal?

 
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