Hanks keeps ‘Terminal’ aloft

By Jessica Kalin

Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” is the kind of movie that bounces along – never soaring, but never really grounded either.

Like most of Spielberg’s endeavors, it’s stuffed with many touching and sentimental moments, but somehow all the sappy mush seems bearable in “The Terminal.”

This is probably, at least in part, due to the casting of the ever-charismatic Tom Hanks. He plays Viktor Navorski, a traveler from a fictional Eastern European country who becomes stranded in New York’s JFK Airport after a government coup in his home nation makes his visa invalid.

The movie is loosely inspired by the story of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian emigrant stuck for years in a Paris airport after he arrived without any documents. The long period in limbo loosened Nasseri’s mental state, but Spielberg keeps Viktor’s mind sharp in the film, as he learns English by merely reading the same travel guide in two languages.

Viktor is enterprising and handy, finding under-the-table employment with the airport’s construction crew. He befriends several airport workers, including a lovably sadistic janitor (Kumar Pallana) who gets his kicks from watching pedestrians slip on clearly marked wet floors.

Of course, Hollywood demands a love interest. A beautiful flight attendant named Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones) captures Viktor’s heart, although she dates a married man who treats her badly.

Zeta-Jones and Hanks overplay the romantic tension. Some of the film’s excesses, such as a circus-like candlelight dinner, become apparent in the side drama between the two.

Despite too much stretching of the romance and too much pulling of the heartstrings, “The Terminal” remains an amusing film. Gentle laughs are sprinkled throughout the plot, such as when the lights from an airplane accidentally scare Viktor into surrendering in an empty room.

Hanks, the highlight of “The Terminal,” possesses the ability to make even tiny jokes warm and funny. Without a performance of his caliber, the film’s sappy plot and ordinary direction would come through more clearly. As it is, Spielberg and Hanks create a modern fairly-tale atmosphere that manages to blur the edges of its imperfections.

In the end, “The Terminal” is just an OK place for film viewers to visit, but they shouldn’t linger too long.