Tourist Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives in New York just as a coup back home renders his passport invalid. With no flights, he can’t be sent home, but neither can he set foot on US soil. He’s confined to the departures lounge of JFK International Airport, sleeping where he can and doing odd jobs for money. With a promotion imminent, the testy head of security just wants Navorski out of his airport, legally or illegally. Meanwhile, Navorski’s good humour and kindness are making him friends among the down-trodden staff – and attracting the attention of glamorous but jaded air hostess Amelia…
Developed from an original idea by Truman Show writer Andrew Niccol, The Terminal has a lot in common with it: an ordinary, unworldly man finds himself trapped in an unreal environment. If anything, though, The Terminal is less believable. Does a coup really invalidate not only your visa, but also your passport? Why has this situation never arisen before? And who thinks that ‘Krakozia’ sounds like a real European country?
Despite Stanley Tucci’s efforts, the security chief is a caricature, who persecutes Navorski on a scale unjustified by the minor nuisance he presents, and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ airhostess is bland and underwritten (and seems to be on call 24 hours a day, in defiance of all labour laws).
As simplistic, and sometimes ridiculous, as it is, The Terminal is not without its charms. An array of quirky supporting characters, from a grumpy janitor (initially convinced Navorski is a CIA plant), to a shy baggage handler in love with a ball-busting immigration officer, provides most of the human interest. Scenes where Navorski makes use of his airport experience, like his moneymaking plans, and his intervention on behalf of an Eastern European being arrested for customs violation, also work well.
But the real problem is Tom Hank’s simple, saintly Navorksi – Forrest Gump with a Bulgarian accent. His refusal to escape limbo by making a false asylum claim, for example, because he won’t lie about his country, is the act not of a patriot but a simpleton. Endlessly cheery, never expressing fears for anyone back home or frustration with his ludicrous situation, he hardly seems human at all – and if he doesn’t react emotionally to his sufferings, how can the audience?
If the film had been a little braver, prepared to criticise the ironies of international law and the faceless commercialism of the world’s airports – or even to allow Navorski some real emotions about his appalling plight – it would have been a far more interesting watch. As it is, The Terminal is a pleasant but soporific couple of hours, the emotional equivalent of a soothing warm bath.