Just as mild-mannered Viktor Navorski touches down at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, he learns that his native Krakozhia (a small, Eastern European republic created for the movie) has suffered a military coup. For all intents and purposes, it no longer exists. Consequently, Viktor’s passport is invalid and he can’t legally set foot on U.S. soil. And since there isn’t a country to which to return him, he’s stuck in the airport with barely enough understanding of English to find a men’s room.
A self-serving bureaucrat named Frank Dixon tells the visitor he has fallen through a small crack in the system (“You are, at this time, simply unacceptable”). Dixon hands Viktor a few meal vouchers, a pager and a 15-minute phone card, and tells him to hang out in the international transit lounge. Indefinitely. Days turn into weeks. Weeks become months. Gate 67 becomes Viktor’s home. While making the best of a horrendous situation (and making friends along the way), this kindhearted, resourceful “man without a country” becomes a local hero … and a pebble in Dixon’s shoe.
Viktor is polite, patient and respectful of others. He offers assistance and advice to strangers in need. When things don’t go his way, Viktor doesn’t whine or make demands; he educates and applies himself in order to improve his situation. He uses travel literature and the crawl at the bottom of a cable news channel to help teach himself English. He’s a talented craftsman with a strong work ethic. He generally does what’s right, resisting the temptation to violate the law or exploit loopholes. At one point he takes pity on a desperate man and becomes a folk hero for putting the individual ahead of the system (unfortunately, it involves lying to officials). Regarding that incident, even Dixon’s boss respects the heart behind Viktor’s actions, telling his by-the-book subordinate, “Compassion, Frank. It’s the foundation of this country.” Dixon is such a sly, unlikable antagonist that his moral flaws (dishonesty, arrogance, vindictiveness, prejudice, blackmail, etc.) are clearly examples of how not to behave.
Viktor is a gentleman as he interacts with a pretty flight attendant named Amelia (a stark contrast from the way most men treat her, which attracts her to him). Another sweet alliance forms between Viktor and Enrique, a shy young man eager to learn more about a pretty co-worker. Friends make significant sacrifices for each other. Viktor extends kindness to Dixon even after the bureaucrat has been cruel to him. Months of patience and perseverance take on added meaning when we learn that Viktor’s trip to America isn’t for himself, but to fulfill a promise to someone else. It’s also humbling to see a foreigner willing to spend months in political limbo for the right to roam U.S. soil for a single day. How much we take for granted! Also, through Viktor’s eyes viewers get a sense of how overwhelming and scary America must feel to some foreigners.
Viktor crosses himself, suggesting religious faith.
Mulroy implies that flight attendants are promiscuous and “always ready for sex.” When in New York, Amelia carries on an affair with a man she knows is married. She admits that she’s addicted to dysfunctional relationships and says she should probably stop waiting for him to choose her over his wife, adding, “I just wish the sex wasn’t so amazing.” She also says male passengers grab her backside.
News reports show an uprising in Krakozhia. There are reports of officials being killed. To make a point, Dixon pounds a bag of potato chips, sending them flying at Viktor. He later gets into a scuffle with Viktor as security officers wrestle a man to the floor. Amelia describes Napoleon Bonaparte’s suicide attempt. A man tells Viktor the story of how he stabbed a corrupt policeman in the chest.
Two dozen profanities (not counting a verbal volley in which Viktor repeats the expression “he cheats” in broken English such that Enrique and the audience think he’s using the s-word). There are several intentional s-words and about 10 exclamatory misuses of the Lord’s name (including one “Jesus” and two interjections of “g–d–n”).
A passenger gets caught attempting to smuggle drugs into the United States. Another is detained trying to take medicine out of the country. Mulroy smokes cigarettes. Viktor and Amelia uncork a bottle of wine during dinner. Men celebrate with beer at a bar. Dixon rummages through a drawer full of pharmaceuticals. He also tells his men to contact the parents of young travelers caught importing marijuana from Jamaica.
Airport employees gamble, not for money but for unclaimed items from the lost and found including a celebrity’s thong. Audiences should brace themselves for an all-out assault of shameless product placements. A rude janitor gets his kicks from watching people slip on a wet floor.
Just call him Foreign Gump. Much like the noble, socially disenfranchised soul who earned Hanks a 1994 Oscar, Viktor exudes an unaffected sincerity and decency that has us on his side right away. For Viktor, life is like a box of matryoshkas; he never knows what he’s gonna get, though it’s a safe bet each experience will be a little smaller and more manageable than the one that came before. That’s how his world evolves. At first Viktor is overwhelmed by his predicament, the chaos back home, the busyness of JFK and his inability to communicate. But he’s smart and ambitious. The longer he lives in the terminal, the more control he exerts over his environment (a microcosm of melting-pot America). It becomes his home away from home and a place where he develops more community in a few months than some people do in a lifetime.
Fans of Tom Hanks films may also draw comparisons to his role in Cast Away. Instead of a flight stranding him on a desert island, this one strands the actor in a crowded airport. Despite the throng, Viktor starts out just as lost and alone as Hanks’ loinclothed FedEx employee ever was. Isolated amid hustle, bustle and consumerism that means nothing to him, Viktor struggles for a comfortable bed and a meager meal. Instead of cracking open coconuts with ice skates, Hanks eats condiments on crackers and works like mad to gather enough luggage carts to buy a burger in the food court. He is surrounded by riches beyond his grasp and must rely on raw ingenuity for the bare essentials. And he succeeds without giving in to bitterness. That triumphant good-man-against-the-system element is the best part of this touching, poignant, often funny film.
Says producer Walter F. Parkes, “If you are going to be stuck somewhere, an airport can actually be a fascinating place. They are places of high emotion—people are either saying goodbye or saying hello. … You get to see a cross-section of humanity parading through, and if you look at it that way, it’s not the worst place to spend a few hours.” The same can be said of The Terminal. Intriguing people. Unusual circumstances. Inspirational moments. Not a bad place to spend a couple of hours.
As always, Hanks is terrific. And, as Dixon, Stanley Tucci breathes life into scenes which manage to combine both tension and humor. Unfortunately, Catherine Zeta-Jones sucks the joy out of the room as Amelia. She’s OK in the role, but it’s disappointing to see Viktor take a romantic interest in this pretty flight attendant with a thing for other women’s husbands. Like Viktor, Amelia is essentially living in airports and going nowhere. But she’s a much sadder case, mired in sin and unwilling to rise above her bad situation. Because she’s having an affair with a married man, we know she’s trouble and can’t bring ourselves to root for Viktor to get too close. Heartache is as certain as the announcement to return our seats to an upright and locked position. Sure, there’s a point to this bittersweet subplot (Proverbs 26:11 comes to mind), but sitting through the lesson isn’t terribly entertaining or uplifting. That and the profanity are turbulence on an otherwise pleasant flight.