After reading several contemporary reviews of The Terminal I’m surprised that critics at the time did not note the single most distinct trait of the film: This Terminal is very much a reaction to September 11 — more precisely, a reaction to the shifting political and cultural winds in the wake of September 11.
This film is mired with all sorts of weird politics. It goes out of its way to condemn the fascistic rise of “homeland security” and the marginalization of immigrants and people of color. It’s obsessed with the minutia of security and operation protocol at airport terminals. The villain is government surveillance personified. I think you could write a whole dissertation on the film’s politics, but here’s my summary: The Terminal presents a neoliberal perspective on post-9/11 America, a backlash to all of the increased infractions on liberty, especially to outsiders, in the name of abstract concepts of security and patriotism.
I don’t think these politics make the movie good, nor bad. It’s just a fascinating time capsule of a national outlook from a very specific, volatile time in the nation’s recent history.
Most bizarrely, all of that is baked into a breezy comedy. The Terminal is Steven Spielberg at his goofiest and most weightless. The scenario begs for drama and angst and introspection, but Spielberg tosses anything heavy to the bin in favor light sitcom and romcom beats, haphazardly assembled into an uneven narrative.
The movie’s tone hinges entirely on Tom Hanks performance, one of his more broadly comic from the second half of his career. He adopts a caricatured Eastern European accent and leans into the fish out of water comedy while still maintaining his typical genial charm and sense of noble humanity for the film’s duration. It is, frankly, a bizarre performance, but not a bad one.
Just as striking as Hanks’s performance is the ensemble of mostly-friendly side characters. Like a workplace sitcom, they’re presented as a family away from home: Diego Luna, Kumar Pallana, and Zoe Saldana are all highlights, begging to be given more ambitious material (which Luna and Saldana shortly would be).
The love interest is played by Catherine Zeta Jones as a stewardess whose romantic life is as unmoored as Tom Hanks geographic life. Zeta Jones and Hanks have excellent chemistry, although I wish the characters actually had more to do with each other than have a few conversations and one dinner date.
Stanley Tucci provides a fascinating villain: He is an all-seeing bureaucrat equal parts malicious and procedural, trying to mask his personal feelings behind red tape technicalities and aggressive surveillance. It actually feels quite prescient: his aloof disregard of the comfort and privacy of other characters fits very nicely in a post-Snowden era.
Beyond all its strangeness, this is still a Spielberg flick, and few are better at crafting inviting worlds and characters that make you want to hop into the screen to explore and get to know.
I can see why this movie is off-putting to plenty of people, but I dig it. It never quite justifies its bizarre mashup of ideas juxtaposed to its light tone, but it charms nonetheless. I like it a lot, but I also almost always like Hanks and Spielberg, so even when they’ve shifted down a couple gears, it still works quite well for me.
- Review Project: Tom Hanks Retrospective