Spielberg: The Terminal

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WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Viktor Navorski is on his way to New York for reasons that will not become known until the end of Act III.  Due to a strange quirk of fate, finds himself stateless. His fictional country, Krakosia, has experienced a coup while his plane was in the air, his passport is now invalid, and the US does not recognize the new government. The "strange quirk of fate" aspect of the narrative is important, because it marks The Terminal as a comedy. (In Greek terms, a comedy is when the gods mess with your life, a tragedy is when you mess with your own life.) It also marks Viktor as a passive protagonist, a simple soul powerless against large antagonistic forces. Which is acceptable for a comedy — up to a point. Because Viktor’s key problem is a civil war half a world away, he has no choice but to wait in the airport terminal until the war is over. This is a comic situation, so the screenwriter must raise significant dramatic tension, out of nowhere, to keep the narrative balls in the air.

The choice The Terminal makes is to give Viktor an antagonist in the form of Frank Dixon. Frank is an airport-security chief who wishes to rise in the airport-security game. To impress his bosses and hasten his promotion, Frank runs a tight administrative ship. Viktor’s problem becomes Frank’s problem, and Frank’s efforts to make Viktor’s life difficult form the spine of The Terminal‘s story.

Their conflict is played out via a series of ever-escalating tempations. Viktor, like millions of immigrants before him, wishes only to get into New York. Frank is willing to grant Viktor’s wish, but at a price. At the end of Act I, Frank tries to eject Viktor from his terminal by encouraging him to break the rules. Viktor, sensing a trap, balks — he won’t break the rules in order to get what he wants. In Act II, Frank tries another approach: if Viktor will claim asylum by saying that he’s afraid to return to Krakosia, he can be admitted into New York. But Viktor will not lie to get what he wants either — for all its faults, he won’t betray his home. In Act III, Frank cuts a deal with Viktor — if Viktor helps him defuse a dicey situation regarding a panicky Russian citizen, he will grant Viktor a visa. Viktor defuses the situation, but not to Frank’s liking — he won’t "play ball," and betray a fellow traveler, to get what he wants.

While all this has been going on, Viktor has been making his way in the terminal, creating a life in the act of waiting, flourishing in the manner of wily, scrappy immigrants in America for two hundred years. He has made a number of friends, and even begun a tentative romance with a flight attendant.

In Act IV, the war in Krakosia magically ends (you know those former Soviet republics with their catch-as-catch-can, will-o-the-wisp governments), which frees Viktor to enter New York and get on with his life. But Frank, now pushed past the point of reason, forces Viktor to a crisis — he must abandon his goal of entering New York and return immediately to Krakosia, or else Frank will punish all of the friends he’s made in the terminal — all of whom are "breaking the rules" in one way or another. Viktor will, of course, not betray his friends in order to get what he wants.

The Viktor/Frank conflict outlines a clean, coherent comedy of the immigration experience and works very well. It also represents a mild critique of the Bush administration’s brutality and incompetence, power in the hands of a careerist zealot instead of a public servant.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take up that much screen time, and since Viktor is a passive protagonist, the screenwriter must do a lot of work to make Viktor’s situation interesting. Viktor’s goal, after all, is not "to make a life for himself in a difficult situation," it is "to get to New York." (For reasons that won’t become apparent until the end of Act III.) So many of his advancements are made by accident, or through the good graces of the people who work in the terminal. Viktor seeks out nothing but survival in his predicament, and so others must come to him and offer their assistance. Wacky hijinks ensue: Viktor gets a good-paying construction job through a misunderstanding, serenades an immigration official on the behalf of a lonely baggage handler, befriends a cranky janitor and becomes a local hero.

None of this rings remotely true. Characters are given "interesting quirks" to rescue them from mediocrity: the comely immigration official is also a Trekkie (quel ironic), the janitor is both a sadist and a fugitive from justice, the baggage-handling poker buddies play for wacky lost-and-found items. Physical comedy pushed to levels of slapstick abounds — quarters spray out of a vending machine, characters take pratfalls, Viktor does a goofy foreign dance.

(The supporting cast, while wacky in the extreme, is nevertheless thematically consistent. Everyone in the movie we care about is, of course, an immigrant or descended from immigrants — there’s barely a WASP anywhere in the airport.)

In the middle of all the wackiness, a romance is forced. Amelia, a flight attendant, literally stumbles upon Viktor while on her way to meet her married lover. Given no impetus whatsoever, she confesses her romantic problems to Viktor and soon falls madly in love with him. Viktor, also with no impetus whatsoever, responds in kind and soon is reading biographies of Napoleon in order to find something to say to Amelia, staging a wacky dinner with his zany terminal pals in order to woo her and building a fountain, in the middle of a construction site, in her honor. In the end, Amelia chooses to return to her life of waiting and remain with her terminal relationship with her dead-end lover, granting a rare moment of realism to a movie otherwise distinterested in it.

Viktor’s mission in New York, it turns out, is to honor his father’s memory by completing a mission he had in life of collecting the autographs of jazz legends. That’s a compelling goal and thematically resonant, but seems to come out of nowhere and is reached with little dramatic impact. His goal accomplished, Viktor sees no reason to stay in the United States — in Spielberg’s work, home trumps country.


29 Responses to “Spielberg: The Terminal”
  1. stormwyvern says:

    I had kind of wondered if this Spielberg film with a pretty star-heavy cast was generally forgotten because it happened to be a comedy. From your comments, though, it sounds like the film just doesn’t quite manage to get past its concept of showing the titular terminal as a microcosm of life in the US enough to allow it characters to become more than symbols with a few quirks thrown in.

    I’d say that Zoe Saldana’s assigned character quirk is more coincidental than ironic in light of her upcoming role. Irony would be if she played a character who absolutely despised the whole “Star Trek” franchised and obtained some level of fame for that role.

  2. I saw this movie once, on HBO, and don’t remember much about it other than it feeling really forced. Spielberg’s just too Spielberg to pull off a small comedy, and Hanks is just too Hanks to pull of an Eastern European immigrant. I always liked to think it was a quick little lark of a film, inspired by all that shooting Spielberg did in the old TWA terminal for Catch Me If You Can–almost an indie director’s exercise, the way Smoke spawned Blue In The Face–but I doubt players this big work that fast and loose.

    Does the movie itself make any mention or joke of the fact that Frank Dixon is the “author” of the Hardy Boys books?

    • Todd says:

      I like the idea that, for Spielberg’s idea of a “small comedy,” an enormous, fully-functioning airport terminal was constructed.

      And now that I look back on it, I’m surprised that Spielberg didn’t work in a cameo for Leonardo DiCaprio to breeze through the terminal in his pilot’s uniform.

      I did not know that “Frank Dixon” is the Hardy Boys auteur, and the only defining feature the screenplay gives him is his fondness for fishing. Which, being the careerist he is, seems a little unlikely.

      • chronoso says:

        “I’m surprised that Spielberg didn’t work in a cameo for Leonardo DiCaprio to breeze through the terminal in his pilot’s uniform”

        well, other than the time periods being different, i wish he had.

        I’m always disappointed that at no point during Band of Brothers did you hear a motley crew in the background searching for a lost private ryan..

        • Todd says:

          Especially since Spielberg went way out of his way to work in a teenage Short Round into the narrative of Empire of the Sun.

          • chronoso says:

            it’s been forever since i’ve seen Empire of the Sun, but that fact does nothing but further my unhealthy obsession of linking single-creator continuities. damn you kevin smith for pointing my down this evil road!

  3. curt_holman says:

    The Terminal-ator

    “That’s a compelling goal and thematically resonant, but seems to come out of nowhere and is reached with little dramatic impact.”

    True — I’m sure that Viktor alluded to his father at some point in the film, but I don’t recall any foreshadowing involving, say, jazz music that would have made the revelation “click.” Perhaps the jazz club is meant to convey a sense of warm, timeless ease and offer a contrast to the hustle and corporatization of the airport terminal. But when I saw the The Terminal, the revelation felt pretty arbitrary.

    Also, as much as I like Tom Hanks as an actor, I find it distracting that several of his films feature huge corporate brands so prominently: You’ve Got Mail (named after the AOL motto), Cast Away (like a long Federal Express commercial), The Terminal (big chains at the terminal). It’s no reflection on Hanks’ individual performances, but emphasizes, to me, how much famous movie stars are like commodities.

    I actually really like the Chaplinesque qualities of the film and Hanks’ performance, especially in its first half. The various scenes of Viktor figuring out how to beat the system seem to tap into Spielberg’s facility at showing Characters Learning To Do Stuff, like you were pointing out in previous posts.

    • Todd says:

      Re: The Terminal-ator

      The history of jazz is, of course, central to the American experience, the descendants of slaves creating an entirely new music form and all, and I suppose its basis in theme and improvisation are thematically consonant with the concerns of The Terminal, but those parallels aren’t illustrated in any coherent or useful way in the movie.

    • blagh says:

      Re: The Terminal-ator

      There was a bit where he was playing poker with the baggage guys, and they wanted to know what was in his tin. He wouldn’t let them look inside, but he would tell them there was jazz (or, as Russian pronunciation would have it, ‘yatz’) inside.

      • Todd says:

        Re: The Terminal-ator

        But that one lone reference is only a word, it doesn’t connect the rest of the narrative to “jazz” as an idea or as a narrative device. It’s treated like a joke.

        • blagh says:

          Re: The Terminal-ator

          Still, it was also one of the only teasers given. It didn’t make much sense at the time, and it wasn’t much, but it was there to tie back to.

          Granted, it might have stuck in my head because that’s how my parents pronounce jazz sometimes (specifically, when they’re referring to the Pori Jazz Festival), although they’re Finnish, and not Russian.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: The Terminal-ator

      Just watching the trailer for “Cast Away,” I honestly thought I was either watching a very high budget FedEx ad or clips from a movie which had been reworked to make a FedEx ad. We called it “FedEx: The Movie” for quite some time. I’ve seen part of it now and I have come to associate it with things other than FedEx (though it probably helped that the part I saw was nearer the end than the beginning), but the heavy brand presence there still kind of rubs me the wrong way.

      • curt_holman says:

        FedEx: The Movie

        If memory serves me right, there’s a dinner-table scene in Cast Away and Tom Hanks’s family is actually talks admiringly about the early “lore” of Federal Express as a company. It just struck me as bizarre:, like “I sure love Big Brother! Don’t you love Big Brother?”

        Plus, the fact that he ultimately delivers the last package at the end kind of puts the seal on it as a big commercial, for me.

        I’ve heard that FedEx did not pay for the film’s product placement, for what it’s worth.

        • stormwyvern says:

          Re: FedEx: The Movie

          My best guess is that the filmmakers (I’m hesitant to assign credit/blame to anyone in particular, especially without having seen the whole movie) wanted to show Hanks’s character as someone who had a pretty darn good life and that one way of doing that was to give him a good job with a company he actually felt really good about and seems to regard as almost part of the family, making it all the more difficult when he’s stranded on an island with nary a FedEx drop box in sight. I don’t know if it would have seemed any more or less believable in this case if the film had given us a fictional company to feel all snugly-wugly about instead of a real one.

    • chronoso says:

      Re: The Terminal-ator

      while the FedEx Cast Away commercial is pretty blatant, i think that having the corporate brands in movies like Terminal and You’ve Got Mail make them more..realistic.

      Does Mallrats suffer for having all the stores in the mall be fakes? probably not, but real life airports are nothing if not giant malls for corporate brands, so it’s not like they’re making the characters drink pepsi cans with the label towards the screen, it’s just more…real.

      • curt_holman says:

        Product placement

        I take the point, and one of my pet peeves is the way that films that take place in small towns never show the kind of national fast food or gas station chains that are out there.

        Still, I honestly prefer that real bands have some kind of distance or irony in films, like the use of Geritol and other real brands in ‘Quiz Show,’ or Da Mayor trying to buy his Miller High Life, I think, in ‘Do the Right Thing,’ or James Cagney trying to sell Coca-Cola to the other side of the Iron Curtain in ‘One, Two, Three,’ or Jack Nicholson discovering that a Tires Plus (I believe) now stands on the site of his childhood home in ‘About Schmidt.’ In the Tom Hanks examples, I feel like I’m being sold to.

        • chronoso says:

          Re: Product placement

          oh, i totally agree in the case of Cast Away, and yeah, they totally could have used a different provider for You’ve Got Mail, but hey, at least the computer usage was somewhat realistic instead of super duper scifi Hackers style.

          you win some, you lose some, i guess.

          • Todd says:

            Re: Product placement

            In defense of You’ve Got Mail, the title is, after all, a phrase directly associated with AOL. Although I suppose they could have called it Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan Romantic Comedy Project and sold just as many tickets.

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Product placement

          Wonder Bread didn’t pay a cent for Talladega Nights. It was just funny to have him sponsored by Wonder Bread.
          -Doctor Handsome

  4. charlequin says:

    Why does Viktor even leave the airport during the movie? The premise seems like a perfect opportunity to take the structure of a one-set comedy play and (as you are so fond of saying) “turn it on its head”: make your one set into a luxuriously designed, fully-constructed, gigantic airport.

    Is there any particular reason the Viktor vs. Frank dynamic couldn’t be the full narrative thrust of the movie?

    • sean_tait says:

      “…Viktor vs. Frank… “


      It’s actually an absurdly subtle play on “Frankenstein!” Frank creates a monster by persecuting Viktor! “The Terminal” refers to the bolts in Boris Karloff’s neck!

    • Todd says:

      Well, I’m sure the first thing Spielberg asked was “why has he come to New York in the first place?” and the “jazz-honor-thy-father” story was put in there to answer that question. Because otherwise, “to get home” would be the most obvious goal for Viktor, and enough to hang the movie on, and Frank could be the thing standing in his way of that. (It’s bad enough that Frank’s goal changes from “to get Viktor out of the terminal” to “to keep Viktor in the terminal.”) If “to get home” is Viktor’s goal, then Amelia could represent an obstacle, or an alternative goal. “Well, I’d love to get home, but then there’s this woman and I love her and she will never want to go live in Krakosia, so maybe I’ll stay here.” Which would make the movie a viable love story, but the love story feels forced every step of the way, and “home” is an abstraction for the audience, since Krakosia is made to be, literally, an anonymous Soviet satellite.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Did you notice the Casablanca reference near the end, with Dixon, like Major Strasser, shouting into an intercom, “Arrest him! Arrest him!”?

    • Todd says:

      I’m pretty sure that this is the first time anyone has ever mentioned The Terminal and Casablanca in the same sentence.

  6. leborcham says:

    Worst Spielberg movie I’ve ever seen. The romance angle was especially forced and the cute “comedy.” I would rather have seen a bleak, darkly comic procedural about what it is like living in a freaking airport.

    • Todd says:

      While I’m not a big fan of The Terminal, I place it above Hook and Always on the list of movies where Spielberg falls short. And I agree that while there is a funny, interesting narrative to be spun from the idea of living in an airport terminal, wacky hijinx is not the device I would choose to carry that narrative. I could even see a slowly-developing romance occurring between the protagonist and a flight attendant, but, let’s face it, for whatever reason, romance is not Spielberg’s strong suit. He deeply understands fatherhood, childhood and (male) adolescence, but courtship and romance seem to be beyond his grasp.

  7. jbacardi says:

    Can’t really argue with any of the negatives everyone else has brought up; this isn’t, by any means, Spielberg’s finest moment.

    But strangely enough, I found myself enjoying it the first time I watched it. Maybe I was in a good mood, who knows. And as arbitrary as it may have been (although it WAS foreshadowed, maybe not as obviously as it could have been but it was there nonetheless), the ending kinda moved me, and that’s something SS does which usually annoys me no end, this sentimental heartstring-tugging stuff. Like a previous commenter, the way SS staged the whole Jazz Club finale reminded me (evoked, didn’t equal) Chaplin. Maybe it was the snowflakes, who knows. Maybe it was my own father issues (which aren’t really as dire as I make them sound by that). Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting much and was pleasantly surprised. Who knows.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Enjoyed it, both times

    The Terminal is far from being Spielberg’s worst movie. I could name a dozen worse than it. Actually, I found it quite enjoyable. Besides, it was a riot to hear Hanks cursing in my mother tongue.