If the time has come for the summer to prove the season for a sweet, little contemporary allegory that celebrates the immigrant spirit and the triumph of the little man over heartless bureaucracy, then The Terminal may do it. Of course, it helps that the only things really little about this film are its story and setting--basically New York's Kennedy Airport--and its "little" hero, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a good-natured man from an embattled Eastern European country, who attempts a short visit to Manhattan to secure the autograph of a jazz musician his father back home admires.
While The Terminal may sound like a Cessna among the summer's 747s, its engine is powered by the likes of Oscar winners Steven Spielberg, directing a comedy for a change, and, in addition to Hanks, another star with Rolls Royce pedigree, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who portrays a neurotic stewardess who can't seem to find love in any (air) port until Viktor lights her fire.
The Terminal's set-up is eminently serviceable: Just as Viktor arrives at Kennedy (actually a massive set built in a California hanger), Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the ambitious, fawning and villainous customs and security tyrant, learns from breaking news that Viktor's Eastern European homeland is without a government, thus rendering him a man without a country and unfit to enter ours, in spite of the wholly innocent purpose of his visit to retrieve the autograph of a Manhattan-based jazz saxophonist (Benny Golson as himself).
Caught like a deer in headlights, Viktor is forced to make his home at the airport until there's stability, actually a country, back home. He adapts quickly, befriending a group of recent immigrants and ethnic types who hold menial airport jobs and are Emma Goldman-like incarnations of the immigrant cause.
Among this noble team are Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna, whose triumph in Y Tu Mamá Tambin has been a passport to roles in a number of upcoming films), who delivers food to the airlines, and Gupta Rajan (Kumar Pallana), who cleans the airport floor dangerously smooth and has fled his native country as a result of a perfectly understandable act that got him in trouble with the law. There's also Torres (Zoe Saldana), the customs and immigration clerk, always unable to give Viktor better news of his status.
In line with its allegorical message of immigrant adaptability and solidarity the American Way, Viktor sets up house for himself at the airport, arranging rows that serve as a bed and devising ruses to keep himself fed. A gifted artisan and craftsman, he even lands a job at the airport in construction. But such paths, especially when contrived for the movies, are not without pain. Thus, the autocratic and obsessed customs wonk Dixon grows more and more menacing as Viktor's nemesis.
As counterpoint to the misery Dixon creates for Viktor, the arc of love emerges by way of Amelia Warren (Zeta-Jones), an ever-displaced, peripatetic stewardess with a history of failed romances. As these kinds of movies will have it, she is charmed by Viktor and the two begin an awkward airport flirtation. The high point is the romantic dinner of haute cuisine and live entertainment that Viktor's ad hoc brotherhood of Kennedy Airport cohorts arranges for the couple. The film ends on a jazzy, upbeat note, but doesn't completely bury what must have been the original, but no doubt unoriginal, ending that was mercifully abandoned.
Skewing to an older, more discriminating demographic, Spielberg's film may not find the kind of summer bounty it deserves, but those star names just may move sizeable crowds through this Terminal.