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Kudos for a 'Terminal' Case of Cinematic Simplicity

July 1, 2004 – In "The Terminal," Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have made a film that made Roger Ebert "unreasonably happy."
Now, that is not the kind of reaction you get from critics very often. It is too uncomplicated. Ebert likens this film to sequences by Chaplin or Keaton "where comedy and sadness find a fragile balance."
Viktor Novorski (Hanks) has arrived in America at JFK International Airport, fleeing a war in his Eastern European homeland of Krakozia, only to find that it no longer exists; the country has fallen in a coup. Therefore, Viktor has no nation, no valid passport, no visa. He also has no English. He cannot stay in America, and he has no homeland where he can return.
U.S. Customs official Dixon (Stanley Tucci) tells Viktor he is free to stay in the International Arrivals lounge, but he cannot set foot on American soil. Having little choice, Viktor accepts his lot, but with grace. This throws Dixon, who has never encountered the likes of Viktor. He could drum up a false arrest charge, but he can't bring himself to do it.
Dixon wants Viktor out of the terminal because, well, because he has never had a situation like this before. But Viktor is coming to enjoy his new life. He's not breaking any rules. He makes friends with terminal personnel and begins to learn a little English.
Ebert says this premise could have led to a contrived story in lesser hands, but Spielberg is Spielberg — nothing doing. He weaves the whole situation into a "sweet and delicate comedy," Ebert says.
Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington sees Frank Capra in the film. "There's an emotional link between this movie and the classic 'It's a Wonderful Life,'" he says. Both films portray a cross-section of communities redeemed by one person's goodness. Hanks, of course, is Jimmy Stewart. Apparently, more Jimmy Stewart than Forrest Gump.
Spielberg's small town is a transient airport but a community, nonetheless. Viktor gets to know everybody in the terminal. He falls in love with Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a troubled flight attendant who is having an affair with a married man. She opens her heart to Viktor, who listens.
He manages to make ends meet by returning baggage carts for a quarter deposit and feeding on ketchup and crackers. He befriends Gupta the janitor (Kuman Pallantucci), Joe Mulroy the baggage handler (Chi McBride) and Enrique Cruz the food service guy (Diego Luna), and they form an unlikely alliance. Dixon still simply doesn't understand, but you know he will mellow.
Wilmington finds one flaw, but not a "catastrophic" one. He wonders why Viktor's situation isn't discovered by the media. "You would expect his plight to be a tabloid-cable TV news wonder," he says. "That's a real missed opportunity for sharp satire and social comment." Nonetheless, Wilmington writes, "If it didn't convince me 100 percent, it stirred my heart."
Ebert says Spielberg and Hanks like to work together ("Saving Private Ryan," "Catch Me If You Can"), and here, he says, they trust each other with tricky material. Which, one would guess, means no tricks. Heck, Jimmy Stewart did it straight.
It sounds like a wonderful way to spend a few hours over the Fourth of July — lots of popcorn, no traffic.
"The Terminal" was directed by Spielberg and written by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson. Running time 2:01. Rated PG-13 (for brief language and drug references).
It's playing at Market Square East.

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