It was a real treat when Steven Spielberg made Catch Me If You Can. It was the fist time he had done comedy -- or at least a lighthearted film -- since the poorly received, but well worth watching 1941 two decades earlier. Nothing can be taken away from his serious dramatic films or his big blowout science fiction films, but he showed early on and again with Catch Me that he also had a deft touch with the comic stuff.
The Terminal is not a laugh-a-minute funfest, but it is a light and warm look at many sides of the human condition. It stands out as a rather odd film in that there's no standard story arc; new strands of the plot just kind of float into place now and then.
There's a brief introduction to life at the customs area of an airport -- New York's JFK International -- in which the phrases "What is the purpose of your visit?" and "May I see your return ticket?" have become commonplace. Protagonist Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a traveler from the fictional country of Krakozhia (supposedly once a part of Russia) appears, ready for a visit to the Big Apple, but knowing only two things in English -- how to call for a cab and the word Ramada. But there's a problem: A military coup has just taken place in his country, and, due to U.S. regulations, he must surrender his passport to airport authorities and remain in the large, shopping-mall-like International Transit Lounge until things can be "sorted out." At least that's what he's told by efficient and cold-hearted assistant field commissioner Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who babbles on about the rules, knowing full well Viktor doesn't understand a word of it.
And we know full well that nothing will be resolved in any short while. The whole beginning is a masterful study of switching moods, with nods going to Spielberg and Hanks for pulling it off. It's at first a little funny, then it gets very sad as Viktor sees events back home playing out on an airport TV, then almost tragic as Spielberg pulls his camera away from the lost, desperate figure until he's a tiny speck in a mass of people, then it clicks into comedy mode, all smoothly and effectively.
If this initially looks like it's going to be a major challenge for Hanks and Spielberg -- well, it is. A story of a guy who can't speak English being held against his will in one building, albeit a big one, must have a lot going for it and within it if audience interest is going to be maintained. And that's where all those other stories start careening by, meeting up with Viktor's, and merging into one full one.
The basic story is of good guy Viktor, who has "fallen through the cracks" of the system. First he's ignored, then badgered by Frank, who mostly wants Viktor to be someone else's problem.
Truly alone and slowly realizing that he really is stuck here, unable to get into or out of the country, Viktor must figure out a way to deal with the basics: He must eat, and he discovers a glitch in the system to get money for meals at Burger King; he has to wash, and does so in one of the airport's endless array of bathrooms; he must sleep, so he finds a dark, unused gate that's under construction.
He's in this for the long haul, and before the film winds down to all of its endings -- I believe there are more in this one than there were in the final Lord of the Rings installment -- Viktor develops some unusual relationships among people who work in or regularly pass through the terminal. Among them are cute customs officer Torres (Zoe Saldana) who daily rejects his requests to enter New York; airport food worker Enrique (Diego Luna), who's bashfully trying to woo Officer Torres through Viktor; and airport janitor Gupta (Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pallana), a comically sadistic fellow who enjoys watching people slip and fall on his wet floors. And there's Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a flight attendant with all kinds of man problems who regularly confides in Viktor simply because he doesn't put any moves on her.
Between the Viktor-Amelia relationship and the Viktor-Frank relationship -- Frank continuously watches Viktor on a bank of video screens that would do Brian De Palma proud -- there's a great push and pull that gives Hanks plenty of room to subtly show off his acting chops.
A major plot point that reveals why Viktor came to America in the first place is treated too casually to really make it ring with viewers who aren't savvy about the history of jazz. Here's a tip. Before seeing this, run down to your video rental store and check out a copy of the terrific one-hour documentary A Great Day in Harlem. It'll make watching this film all the more enjoyable.