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THE TERMINAL (article first published : 2004-11-20)

The Terminal, Steven Spielberg's 22nd film as a director and his third to star Tom Hanks, after Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan, is not only a massive disappointment but perhaps the most forgettable film Spielberg has made.

The screenplay has been loosely inspired by a true incident involving a middle-aged Iranian who, late in 1988, arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport with a one-way ticket to London and not much else.

After flying to the UK, he was sent straight back to Paris when he could show no passport, claiming it had been stolen at a Paris train station. The man was then refused entry into France beyond the airport building while authorities tried to find a country willing to accept him.

In the meantime, the Iranian got by sleeping on benches and making ends meet through the goodwill of strangers and staff. After seven years, a human rights lawyer got the bloke temporary asylum to live in France, but he apparently he still chooses to live at the airport, claiming he only wants to live in Britain.

Spielberg's story has Hanks, with a grating accent resembling Topol's in Fiddler On the Roof, playing a foreigner, Viktor Navorski, from a fictional Baltic country called Krakozhia, who is faced with a similar situation. En route to New York, clutching a small can whose contents are only revealed towards the film's end, Viktor learns his country has suffered a military coup and that he has no valid passport.

The result? He is forced to remain in the terminal building, where he relies on his wits to get by, makes pals with airport staff, begins a tentative relationship with a flighty flight attendant (a gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones) and continually upsets the airport immigration big-wig (Stanley Tucci).

It's true the film has its moments, but they are few and far between and one is increasingly annoyed by plot-holes, the abundance of fall-flat humour and highly unlikely plot manouevres.

Why, for instance, is Viktor painted as something of an imbecile just because he battles with English? And why does he go through endless hassle to try to sleep on a row of tiny chairs when he has a whole floor on which to spread out? And why, even if he is using toilets to wash and shave, would he walk through a crowded airport wearing only his dressing gown?

Also, why do airport senior staff stand by and watch while a hungry Viktor, desperate to buy a burger, is forced to collect coins from trolley returns? Why not just send him a meal? Or a blanket and pillow?

And why, when they know the poor guy has little command of English (a situation that magically changes as the story progresses) does nobody ever consider calling in an interpreter?

And a subplot involving Viktor delivering romantic notes to a pretty customs official (Jada Pinkett Smith) on behalf of a lowly airport staffer (Y Tu Mama Tambien's Diego Luna) reaches a ludicrous climax.

Deduct points, too, for John Williams's gooey, crushing score, which builds to thundering crescendos to hammer home sentiment; a silly ending in which one almost expects everyone on screen to applaud; and shoddy editing that shows wine in a glass changing levels between takes.

One reviewer abroad, who loved the film, labels it an elegant and unusual "dramedy" in which Spielberg channels both Capra and Kafka. Hmm, yes, well.... I'd side with the Americans on this one. They stayed away in droves and turned The Terminal into a box-office flop. Rating: 4/10. - Billy Suter




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