Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Terminal Is Agreeable But Also Occasionally Awkward

In the early 2000s, director Steven Spielberg went into the most exciting creative period of his extraordinary career as a filmmaker. For the first few years of the 21st-century, Spielberg, the filmmaker routinely criticized for being too schmaltzy, delivered some of his darkest motion pictures that didn't hesitate to confront the moral ambiguities of the modern world. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Minority Report. Munich. Some of Spielberg's best and most daring movies were released in this period of Spielberg's career. In between grim titles like War of the Worlds, Spielberg also delivered one of his most frothy motion pictures in the zippy comedy The Terminal.

Somewhat inspired by a true story, The Terminal starts with Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), resident of the fictional foreign country of Krakozhia, arriving into the John F. Kennedy International Airport. Not having much in the way of knowledge about the English language or American culture, Navorski plans to just spend a brief amount of time in New York City, nothing too fancy. However, while he was on his flight, the country of Krakozhia collapsed. Now a man without a country, Navorski legally cannot be allowed into the United States of America. With nowhere for him to go, Navorski is trapped at the airport and forced to make a living himself while being more familiar with the people who work at the airport.

A friend of mine described Victor Kavorski as a human version of Paddington Bear, but while watching The Terminal, I found myself being reminded more of classic silent movie protagonists like The Tramp or your average Harold Lloyd lead character. Just these well-meaning but clueless men just trying to get the basics (food, shelter, money, etc.) and frequently engaging in slapstick comedy. Such characters make great lead characters for silent comedies that rarely exceed ninety minutes in runtime. For a 21st-century motion picture that runs a little over two hours and is intended to do more than just provide constant physical comedy, it's a bit surprising The Terminal doesn't lend more depth to its character.

Viktor Navorski isn't a bad protagonist, but like a number of key scenes in The Terminal, he could have used another rewrite just to give an extra bit of dimension. Maybe the biggest problem is that it's sometimes hard to tell if the film is laughing at or with Navorksi, especially in early scenes. The good-hearted nature of the project means it's never mean-spirited toward its lead character. However, initial sequences showing Navorski struggling to assimilate to a foreign culture do tend to feel like they're made exclusively for viewers to chuckle at rather than a chance to explore the mind of our lead character. It is possible to have yuks while making sure your lead character isn't just around to be a punchline.

While Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson's script has trouble seeing Navorski as a person, Tom Hanks compensates for that issue by lending a charming air to the role. Though his thick European accent can't quite escape feeling like a caricature, the rest of Hanks' work on-screen is rock-solid stuff. Much of the creative participants on The Terminal, in fact, are doing fine work, particularly a zippy flute-heavy score by John Williams and impressive production design that builds up a believable airport from scratch! Spielberg's camerawork also remains as thoughtful as ever. Even in more restrained confines than a massive summer blockbuster, Spielberg still finds creative ways to capture conversations and move the camera around.

Honestly, the big issue that keeps dragging down the otherwise pleasant Terminal is the aforementioned script. Specifically, the screenplay has a problem with properly executing big grandiose moments that are supposed to be heartfelt but come off as awkward. This is most notably seen in a climactic showcase of self-sacrifice involving an elderly man racing after an airplane with a mop. It's clearly supposed to be a poignant moment but it's a visual that can't help but look like a goofy moment out of a Marx Brothers comedy. A romance between Navorski and a stewardess played by Catherine Zeta-Jones is similarly lacking something extra in how it plays out. While The Terminal has trouble bringing its ambitions to fruition, it's still a Steven Spielberg directorial effort that isn't Temple of Doom or The Lost World, so it's still agreeable enough.

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