Eastern European Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at J.F.K. airport hoping to visit a particular place in New York, but as soon as he steps off the plane there are complications. His passport is found not to be valid and he is escorted to the office of the security chief, Thurman (Barry Shabaka Henley) to see what can be done. The problem is that Viktor's home country has suffered a coup while he was in flight and the group who have taken over the government are not recognised by the United States, leaving him stranded. He cannot leave the airport, he cannot fly back home - so what can he do? The sole option left to him is to wait...
The Terminal was based on a real person's story, an Iranian who became stuck at a Paris airport for a number of years, but if you were looking for realism then director Steven Spielberg was not the man to give it to you here. This was one of the famed filmmaker's underperforming works, not a devastating flop exactly, but not the high achieving hit that his name on the credits had become synonymous with. The premise is not a bad one even if it was Hollywood-ised, and it was evident that the intent was a slice of Capra-corn for the twenty-first century, but the result tended towards the sickly.
Essentially, Viktor is trapped in the airport for as long as he is not allowed to enter America or leave for his home. Bureaucracy would appear to be the enemy here, all summed up in one character, the administrator Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci takes this thankless role), and it's this which prevents the various colours of the world from getting together and having a good time regardless of who is telling them where they can and cannot go. Viktor swiftly learns English thanks to the wonder of travel guides and begins winning his way into the hearts of the staff, all of whom hail from a selection of parts of the globe.
The airport, we're supposed to see, is like America a microcosm of the world and if it wasn't for big bad governments that are in charge (that'll be Dixon, then) we could all get along swimmingly. It's a simplistic view, and that about sums up the tale presented here, with Viktor as a sort of magical fairy godfather who sprinkles a little enchanted glitter over the lives of everyone he meets. So while he's stuck, he for example acts as a matchmaker between one worker (Diego Luna) and the object of his affection (Zoe Saldana) who he is too shy to speak to face to face.
In addition, Viktor is awarded a romance of his own with air stewardess Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who he has believe that he is passing through the terminal and their meetings are a coincidence, but her on-off relationship with a married man could sabotage their blossoming connection. Again, there's nothing poignant in this when you can see the gears and machinery working so nakedly to get from point A to point B in the clichés that pass for plot. A better approach would not be so contrived and make the film more realistic, but considering they spent a mint on building their own airport terminal then a focus-grouped fable is all they were willing to bank on. When you don't believe the leading man's accent, never mind the twists and turns of the story, then it's clear there was nothing challenging about this and The Terminal was heading straight down the easy to please route with banal results. Music by John Williams.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.