The Terminal (12A)

Little boy lost, come blow on your corn
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The most squirm-inducing moment in Steven Spielberg's The Terminal comes when Tom Hanks's stranded east-European traveller is politely but firmly ejected from a VIP lounge in New York's JFK Airport. The smoked glass doors slide shut in his face as he tries to watch the TV inside, which shows news coverage of unrest in his country. Before a lump can form in your throat, it hits you: when was Steven Spielberg last refused access to a VIP lounge? Not that film-makers need direct experience of exclusion to make films about it. But the comic pathos of The Terminal is hardly enhanced by our knowledge that its director is as much a lifelong insider as anyone in Hollywood.

The most squirm-inducing moment in Steven Spielberg's The Terminal comes when Tom Hanks's stranded east-European traveller is politely but firmly ejected from a VIP lounge in New York's JFK Airport. The smoked glass doors slide shut in his face as he tries to watch the TV inside, which shows news coverage of unrest in his country. Before a lump can form in your throat, it hits you: when was Steven Spielberg last refused access to a VIP lounge? Not that film-makers need direct experience of exclusion to make films about it. But the comic pathos of The Terminal is hardly enhanced by our knowledge that its director is as much a lifelong insider as anyone in Hollywood.

The film's premise is simple: a European innocent is stranded at JFK and forced to improvise a life for himself there. Viktor Navorski lands in New York just as a coup has taken place in his fictional country of Krakozhia, leaving him stateless and his presence in the US "unacceptable". Since he can neither return home nor pass through Immigration, he is stuck in the transit lounge until further notice.

This improbable premise is actually inspired by the true case of Iranian-born Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who under similar circumstances has spent 11 years living in Paris Charles de Gaulle. The idea of an airport, a gateway to elsewhere, becoming a huge holding cell certainly sounds promising (perhaps less so if you've visited Heathrow in the last couple of weeks). But the theme might be better suited to a chilly J G Ballard sort of treatment than to The Terminal's terminally cheery comedy.

Written by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, from a story by Gervasi and Andrew Niccol, The Terminal at first promises an edge of political satire. It begins with a vista of walkways, blocked off by a security ribbon reading "US Customs and Border Protection". Officials bark their mantra - "What is the purpose of your visit?" - and the camera cranes over rows of counters, like supermarket checkout tills. It's tempting to see The Terminal implicitly as Spielberg's most Jewish film since Schindler's List and JFK as a fancier Ellis Island, with Starbuck's and Borders franchises.

Hanks's baggy-faced, baggy-suited Viktor arrives stuttering out a prepared catechism: "Yellow cab, please - take me to Ramada Inn." Suavely amused, Stanley Tucci's passport control official Frank Dixon informs him of the coup in Krakozhia, illustrating it by crushing a packet of crisps on his desk. No doubt we're meant to shudder at Dixon's callousness, but the joke falls flat. Perhaps in the early Sixties, in some brittle Cold War comedy, a coup in some comically named faraway land might have seemed suitable gag material, but surely not today.

When Viktor later watches the TV news, the film acknowledges the horror of events in his country; but Spielberg's focus on his puppy-eyed reaction registers as mechanical heartstring-tugging. The glib use of the coup for plot set-up says more than Spielberg intended about America's inability to understand the outside world.

The film's principal joke is undeniably on the US government, which despite the words of Dixon's boss - "Compassion, Frank, that's the foundation of this country" - is shown as anything but compassionate.

Although he gives Viktor more than one chance to skip containment (which Viktor blows each time), Dixon embodies a system that can't comprehend the needs of the individual. Yet as a study in the relationship between the outsider and the state, the two men's protracted face-off is about as complex as that between trash can-dwelling Top Cat and the long-suffering Officer Dibble.

Awkwardly reviving the big-kid persona he managed to slough off after Forrest Gump, Hanks gives us a Chaplinesque little fellow - unflappably resourceful, sweetly tenacious and endlessly capable of embarrassing the system. The paradigm of the self-made immigrant, Viktor teaches himself English from travel guides, feeds himself by winkling quarters from abandoned trolleys, and dutifully queues to fill in his immigration form every day - a patronising joke on the supposed excessive respect for authority in former Soviet states.

Viktor also shows his good heart by befriending a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones, personably second-stringing it), who is besotted with a love rat but touched by Viktor's boyish, sexless attentions. He even gets to woo her in the VIP lounge, with help from some ethnically diverse, perfunctorily sketched airport workers, including Kumar Pallana's testy Indian cleaner and Diego Luna's lovestruck Latino catering operative.

For the film to work either as comedy or as a statement about America and the world, we would have to believe in the terminal itself as a hermetic biosphere - keeping the world out, yet containing something of the whole world within. Designer Alex McDowell has constructed a full-sized terminal in the studio, and this might possibly have given the film something of the absurdist enclosure of Jacques Tati's immortal Playtime; in fact, the recreation is so thorough that we simply assume we're seeing the real thing.

In any case, Spielberg could hardly have picked a worse time to use an airport as a playground for his little boy lost. Since 11 September, airports have surely lost their romance along with their comic potential, and the idea of what it might mean to be "unacceptable" in America requires more careful handling than this film can give it. At one point Dixon comments, "The country's detaining so many people there's no goddamn room any more," but Spielberg lacks the will to ask what this startling line might actually mean in the era of Guantanamo Bay. The message - that a good-hearted individual will muddle through while officials look benignly on with no more than a "Doh" of frustration - is not just blandly reassuring, but downright mendacious.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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