We all know that airports are funny places. They’re worlds of their own. As long as one stays within their confines, they’re a way of going somewhere while not going somewhere. It’s almost like being in purgatory without dying. Obviously, airports are not places where we spend a whole lot of time, but what if we couldn’t leave? Tom Hanks got to experience this when he played Viktor Navorski in the 2004 film, The Terminal.
What’s fun about this movie is watching it unfold. It opens with a panorama of New York’s JFK Airport. In that land of comings and goings, customs director Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) is the godlike overseer. He can pick up on little subtleties and nuances most people miss. A group of Chinese tourists in Mickey Mouse sweatshirts and no cameras? Possible forged papers. An American coming back from Brazil with a big bag of walnuts for his mother-in-law but no wedding ring? Drug smuggler. Frank doesn’t miss a trick.
Into this melée comes Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) from the fictional country of Krakozhia. He plops a Planters peanut can down on the Border Protection agent’s desk while patiently waiting for his passport and visa to be processed. To his dismay, he’s told there’s a civil war in Krakozhia, so his visa is invalid. He’s sent back out into the airport lounge with a pager, some food vouchers, and gift cards to wait things out.
Viktor is in a tough spot. He can’t go back to Krakozhia, and he can’t leave the airport. He’s stuck. All he can do is shop, watch the news, and attempt to use a calling card he can’t read. He can’t even buy food with his food vouchers because Gupta (Kumar Pallana), the janitor sweeps them into his trash can and won’t give them back.
Being a handy sort of fella, Viktor makes things work. He camps out in an unused section of the terminal and makes a game attempt to sleep, but the airport chairs don’t work for that, not to mention there’s endless elevator music playing and flourescent lights shining in his face. Out of frustration, Viktor uses his pocket knife to make a rough bed. Then he finds the breaker box, where he not only turns the lights out, but unplugs the music.
Viktor’s gotta eat, too. Since he has no vouchers, he makes ketchup and mustard sandwiches with saltine crackers. This isn’t nearly enough, of course, and when he spies a lady getting a quarter for returning her luggage cart, Viktor gets an idea. He starts wrangling carts from everywhere and buys a large double Whopper meal from Burger King with the change.
Frank watches all of this on the airport security cameras and it rankles him for some reason. He tries to get Viktor to leave the airport so he’s out of his hair. He even makes up a new Transport Liason job to put a pin in Viktor’s luggage cart business, forcing Viktor to eat the saltine sandwiches again.
Fortunately for Viktor’s tummy, he starts meeting airport employees. One of them, a food service worker named Enrique (Diego Luna) notices that Viktor goes into the Customs office every day in a fruitless bid to get his visa approved. He makes a bargain with Viktor: Food for information about Delores (Zoe Saldana), a pretty Border Protection agent. Viktor becomes Enrique’s proxy, which intrigues and fascinates Delores. Enrique is ecstatic when he finds out Delores is a Trekkie (Ironic, seeing as Saldana went on to play Uhura in Star Trek).
Enrique’s friendship ushers Viktor into JFK’s underground world, where unclaimed Lost and Found items go into a clandestine poker pot. Viktor, Enrique, Gupta, and a guy who drives a go-cart, Mulroy (Chi McBride) play for everything from Cher’s panties to a giant stuffed marlin while noshing on leftover lobster ravioli and caviar.
Meanwhile, Viktor’s got his own possible romance. He keeps running into a flight attendant, Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who admits she’s attracted to unavailable men. Viktor is such a sympathetic ear that she asks him to lunch, but before they can do anything, she gets paged by her married boyfriend.
While he waits to see Amelia again, Viktor tries to get a job. The only problem is, since he has no Social Security number or driver’s license, no one will hire him. He even applies at La Perla, but all the shopladies do is laugh. Viktor finally lands a position with a construction firm that’s refurbishing JFK, getting paid under the table. He does so well that he’s able to buy a Hugo Boss suit and charm Amelia over a dinner of canneloni, served by Mulroy, with Enrique as sommelier and Gupta juggling.
Frank continues to smolder. However, there’s really nothing he can do because Viktor won’t break the law and Krakozhia is still embroiled in its civil war. And anyway, he owes Viktor, who translates when a frantic Eastern European man tries to take medicine out of the United States without a permit. Viktor fumbles out that the medicine is for the man’s goat, and Frank gets livid–he pushes Viktor into the copy machine, which spits out images of Viktor’s hand. Gupta finds the copies and distributes them all over JFK. Whether Frank likes it or not, Viktor is the airport’s mascot.
In this epic standoff, something will have to give, and no one can predict how it will turn out. Who will be the winner? And what’s in Viktor’s peanut can?
Amazingly enough, the film was slightly based on a true story. Mehran Kahini Nesseri is an Iranian refugee who lived at Terminal One of the Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris from 1988 until 2006. He had been expelled from Iran and tried to settle in the United Kingdom, but they wouldn’t take him because he didn’t have papers. Nesseri claimed he was mugged and the papers stolen. France couldn’t put him out of the country because he had entered it legally, but they couldn’t let him leave the airport without proper identification, either, so Terminal One was his home. Airport employees brought him food and newspapers, and Nesseri passed the time writing and studying. He even wrote an autobiography, published in 2004, called The Terminal Man. He was finally hospitalized in 2006 and as of 2008 lives in a Paris shelter. Spielberg paid Nesseri $250,000 for the rights to his story, and in the end used very little of it.
The Terminal is fun in a subdued way. It almost feels like a redux of Cast Away, only with more food and people. Talking to his friends in the airport was probably more stimulating for Hanks than talking to Wilson, though, and he got to do an accent, albeit one from a non-existent country. Hanks doesn’t seem to be an accent guy, at least not ones from outside America, and it’s a little weird seeing him use one on here. Still, he pulls it off.
When he made The Terminal, director Steven Spielberg was fresh off of Catch Me If You Can, and he felt like going lighter this go-around, bringing back Hanks and John Williams, who had both worked with him previously. Much to Spielberg’s delight, Tom Hanks did plenty of unexpected ad-libbing and brought a lot to the character. The scene where Viktor tries to get comfortable in the airport chairs, for instance, is pure Hanks. John Williams wrote a score that had a lilting, Eastern European feel to it, punctuating Viktor’s constant feeling of limbo.
Spielberg and his group got what they were going for in The Terminal. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, but it always does the trick–it’s gentle, satisfying entertainment.
Thanks for reading, all, and have a good one…
The Terminal is available on multi-format Blu-ray from Amazon.
4 thoughts on “Waiting to Blink”
“We all know that airports are funny places. They’re worlds of their own. As long as one stays within their confines, they’re a way of going somewhere while not going somewhere. It’s almost like being in purgatory without dying.”
Goddammit…that’s a PERFECT description.
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Thanks, J-Dub! 🙂
Great review, Rebecca!
Honestly, I knew very little about the terminal until listening to your post.
Sounds like a really nice film. I will definitely keep an eye out for it now.
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Thanks, John–glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, this is definitely an underrated film. Hope you get to see it. 🙂