Film Studies: As bright as a shopping mall, as resonant as a cemetery

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First of all, be prepared to explore and live in one of the greatest sets from film history. Nearly all of Steven Spielberg's The Terminal takes place in an airport terminus, designed by Alex McDowell (give him the Oscar now), which was actually built in a disused hangar in Palmdale, to the north-east of Los Angeles, in one of those places created for mysterious, experimental aircraft, but now housing a daydream airport terminus, with escalators, shops, dining courts, VIP lounges and all the other recesses of the modern airport. It is said to be two football pitches long, and two wide, and I think it is the most magical place that even Spielberg has created.

Although it is never named, the terminal is plainly close to New York City. One day, a flight lands and Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) makes his way through immigration and passport control. But fate has intervened in his attempt to visit Manhattan. His homeland - a mythic Soviet republic - has undergone a revolution while he was in the air. And so, by the time he lands, Viktor is in an immigration limbo: his state is no longer recognised, and his condition is to be eternally "delayed", to wait in the terminal until history takes a fresh turn.

There is an airport supervisor, Frank Dixon (superbly played by Stanley Tucci), who is actually prepared to turn a blind eye to Viktor's predicament. He hints as broadly as very little English needs that if Viktor chooses to walk out into the city at the right moment, then the system will let him go, simply to be free of the aberration to order. But Viktor is a noble soul: he wants to follow the rules, just as much as he longs to get to Manhattan to complete some strange mission - all we know at first is that it has to do with a can of Planters peanuts, his most precious piece of luggage.

The Terminal begins uneasily - and I have to admit that it has been badly reviewed in America, and half-heartedly received by the public. On landing, Viktor has virtually no English and he (and the movie) need to remedy that fast for the tender comedy to start working. So for the first 15 minutes or so, you have to trust, and then you're into something so pure, so touching and so heartfelt it is as if the Charlie Chaplin of the First World War era had returned.

Yes, as you will have gathered this is a parable. More than that, it is a parable about the universal brotherhood of man. This is perilous territory: the sandbanks of sentimentality are plain to see; the danger of homily is always at hand. And, Lord knows, Spielberg has shown a weakness for such things in the past, not least to sweep him away from the potential of Schindler's List. But as I have tried to indicate before, there is no more remarkable person making films today than Spielberg, and The Terminal does not simply succeed as a universal parable. It is the first true comedy that Spielberg has directed - and as he nears 60 it has to be said that Spielberg is still thinking, still growing, still challenging himself.

Viktor becomes a resident of the terminal, much to the irritation of Frank. He makes friends with a mixed bag of people who work at the terminal, and he falls in love with an air hostess, Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose schedule brings her back to the terminal every 10 days or so and whose emotional life is at the mercy of the various married men who, in effect, use her as a kind of hooker.

Viktor will want to marry Amelia, just like a character in a Frank Capra film who encounters a magnificent, sophisticated beauty whose life he hardly comprehends at first. It is a measure of The Terminal that this mere sketch, or blur, of a romance becomes so palpable. Amelia can be described in a line: she is the doll who keeps coming back, but who is too reliant on flying and on being nice to strangers to settle. That said, Zeta-Jones brings an uncanny reality and pathos to the woman. Indeed, she has never done anything remotely as good as this.

Where does that detail come from? Well, from the situation, obviously, and from the benign guidance of Spielberg, no doubt. But there's a more obvious answer: it comes from watching Hanks. It is sometimes said of Hanks that he is a super-star, yes, but really is there that much there? To watch The Terminal is to marvel at the slow accumulation of human and comic detail that builds as Viktor acquires English, and which carries the actor and the character from the status of, say, Chaplin to that of Jimmy Stewart in his Capra films. It is in seeing this painfully ordinary but humane Viktor that Amelia shuffles off her own slipstream for a moment and becomes decent, and vulnerable.

The other vital force in the movie, of course, is the set, or the magical place where it transpires and which is a sweet metaphor for all of America. Despite the size of this set, The Terminal feels like a small film by Spielberg's standards, and I hope that it may encourage him to make more of the same. The screenplay is credited to Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, but the original story comes from Gervasi and Andrew Niccol. The latter is, I think, one of the most intriguing and adventurous people in American film today: Niccol is the writer-director of Gattaca and Simone, and he is the writer of Peter Weir's phenomenal The Truman Show. Just like that great film, The Terminal is fascinated by a place that is brightly lit and sinister, as full of promise as a shopping mall and as resonant as a cemetery. I have to think that Niccol's impulse was very important to this picture.

And The Terminal, for all intents and purposes, has proved a flop. What are we to make of that? A few people I respect have found it too sentimental in its resolution, and I can't really get into that - or the can of Planters - without spoiling the surprise. But I will just say that Viktor tells us early on, in his fractured accent, that all the can holds is "jezz" - and jazz may be the most profound creation to have come out of America. By which I mean to say that Spielberg may be learning comedy, but casualness is not yet his. The Terminal is meant to carry a very large meaning, one of which is to meet the question (asked by so many): where are the great, simple story movies of yesteryear, made for young and old, when the nation is in what may be its greatest crisis. The answer is here - in a hangar in Palmdale, on as screen near you very soon, and the best picture Spielberg and Hanks have made yet. It takes a certain kind of genius to command four football pitches and make it seem like the place for an ordinary, timeless dance of life.

'The Terminal' is released on 3 September