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Friday, June 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as a resident of "The Terminal"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review


***
"The Terminal," with Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Kumar Pallana, Zo Saldana. Directed by Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson. 128 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief language and drug references. Several theaters.
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Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal" hums with the precision of an airport clock; you can almost hear the purr of contentment from a filmmaker who gets to make movies his way. Need an entire airport terminal, complete with dozens of shops and restaurants, constructed from scratch? An Oscar winner (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in a relatively small role? A story so sweet, anyone else who made it would be accused of being a sap?

"The Terminal" is quintessential Spielberg: perfectly cast, technically breathtaking, sentimental to the point of being one sugar cube away from gooey and extremely pleasurable to watch. It's not the director's best, even among his recent films — it doesn't have the lilt of "Catch Me If You Can," or the crackerjack story of "Minority Report" — but it works just fine.

Based (loosely) on a real-life story, the film is set almost entirely at the international terminal at New York's JFK airport, where Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has taken up residence. A native of an Eastern European country torn by strife, he arrives just in time to learn that a coup has taken place back home, and that his passport is no longer recognized by the U.S. He can neither leave America, nor enter it — he is, in the words of airport official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci, marvelous as an officious little bureaucrat), "a citizen of nowhere."

And so Viktor begins a strange, temporary life in the terminal, making friends, finding employment, even falling in love with a pretty flight attendant (Zeta-Jones). The film is a little vague about how much time goes by, but that feels right: Airport terminals have their own sort of timelessness, in which everything stays the same. A running joke throughout is how Viktor's life has become a metaphor, of the sort used by frequent travelers. "Don't you just feel like you live at the airport?" a businessman asks as they shave side-by-side in a terminal men's room. Viktor just stares into the mirror, unable to respond.

Hanks, pale and anxious (there's a permanent worry line between his eyes, serving as punctuation to his sentences), is the heart of the film, and his performance feels so honest that he balances the screenplay's sentimentality. Viktor believes in rules, in order. He's guided by the knowledge that he must do the right thing (that's why he won't just slip out of the terminal when Dixon's back is turned), and he's come to New York on a mission. I won't reveal it to you — it's one of the film's more offbeat surprises — but will say that it's another variant on Spielberg's favorite theme: fathers and sons.

There are bumpy moments in Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson's screenplay (Viktor learns English even more quickly than Robin Williams' Vladimir in "Moscow on the Hudson"), and the film feels just a tad overlong, but ultimately "The Terminal" creates an intricate, fairy-tale world of its own. Within this sweet universe, the movie's excesses — a sudden wedding scene, an elaborate sculpture built by Viktor as a tribute to love, a wildly romantic spotlit kiss — seem not over-the-top but natural, as Spielberg affectionately plays with the many meanings of the word "home."

Homecoming here becomes a reward; as does the movie, if you let it.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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