Not that Steven Spielberg would care about this slam, but the man is as cowardly at finishing his films at the right moment as Indiana Jones gets when he nears a slithering snake.
It’s not a career-long fear — Schindler’s List‘s overwhelmingly powerful parade of Holocaust survivors and Raiders of the Lost Ark’s memorably pessimistic ending.
Fortunately, The Terminal doesn’t aimlessly amble for more than a few minutes after it should. But those moments separate a great film from a very good one with a ridiculous coda. We don’t need to see a certain character walk into a Ramada Inn bar, as we know they’ll get there.
And we really don’t need the film’s final line, a trite big-ticket beat that cartoonishly cuts into the way Spielberg favors thematic subtlety over sentimentality.
Instead, for 123 of The Terminal‘s 128 minutes, Spielberg has made a deeply funny comedy with nicely hit dramatic marks, a perfectly handled romantic touch and some supporting characters that are more than humorous quirks. John Williams’ jazzy score complements the film’s breeziness.
Though it’s a hastily beaten retreat from the comic nastiness of his role in The Ladykillers, it’s another solid appearance from Tom Hanks. Short of his Eastern European accent, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen him do before, but his aw-shucks charm lifts the material as it usually does.
He plays Viktor Navorski, whose fictitious homeland, Krakozhia, suffers a military coup as Viktor is in the air to New York. He’s red-flagged upon landing at JFK, where he’s informed of two things — air travel to Krakozhia has been suspended and the United States government will not recognize the rebel government that has taken over his country.
The result? Viktor must stay in the international terminal until told otherwise, at the direction of U.S. Customs curmudgeon Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). Of course, the impatient Dixon expects and encourages Viktor to flee once he starts walking the terminal in his bathrobe. But Dixon is unaware of Viktor’s affection for following rules and the friends he makes of airport employees.
The airport terminal is a masterpiece of production design from Alex McDowell. With help to capture the cold, impersonal nature of travel and low-end job opportunity, Spielberg makes it feel like its own little world without overdoing it.
McDowell’s design also sets up ample comedic opportunity. Viktor dances brilliantly around the airport’s closed-circuit cameras. He also sets up a riotous romantic dinner to make eyes at flighty flight attendant Amelia, played by a dressed-down Catherine Zeta-Jones, offering great insight into her character’s cycle of damage in limited screen time. And Gupta (Kumar Pallana), the terminal’s Indian janitor, takes his only pleasure in watching hurried travelers disregard the “wet floor” signs.
Like Amelia, Gupta is more than just a narrative convenience. The reasons for his paranoia and cynicism are explained in a brilliantly delivered monologue, which makes his sacrifice later all the more convincing and important. Pallana’s got to be a legitimate contender for an Oscar.
Even the villainous Frank has human moments, fighting to get out of a job he clearly hates. His terse, futile verbal battles with Viktor are tiny masterpieces of territorial frustration. The movie should end with the slight softening of this, its hardest heart. Unfortunately, Spielberg just can’t resist that temptation to yank, not tug, at ours just a little more.