As excellent as he is as the humble tourist rendered stateless by a bureaucratic glitch, Tom Hanks is not the star of The Terminal. And while her shapely curves bring a welcome ooomph to her role as the stewardess he adores, neither is Catherine Zeta-Jones. It's not even Steven, for all the Spielmeister's deft appropriation of territory that, back in the day, might easily have attracted the likes of Frank Capra or Ernst Lubitsch.
No, people. The true star of The Terminal is the actual terminal itself: a gleaming, bustling temple to consumerism with an army of impeccably drilled extras, a fully functional information board and enough retail outlets (Starbucks, Burger King, Borders bookshop) to fill a suburban stripmall. It's JFK International Airport Spielberg-style, a personal playground as meticulously realised as the Well of Souls or a Close Encounters spaceship. It looks real, doesn't it? Yes, but it's not: built in a huge Californian aircraft hangar, it's a free-standing, three-storey, 60,000-square-foot facsimile. Rarely can so much time, cash and effort have been spent to create a set so utterly, gloriously ordinary.
In Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, Spielberg proved that he could present historical reality as authentically as any Discovery Channel documentary or crackly Pathé newsreel. More recently, in AI and Minority Report, he evoked futureworlds as dazzling as anything George Lucas or Ridley Scott could come up with. What he attempts in The Terminal is both far simpler and yet infinitely more complex: to fabricate everyday reality in all its hectic, tedious, numbing mundanity.
Okay, so this is hardly The Beard's usual beat. What is the man who brought us ET and Raiders doing hanging out next to a baggage carousel? Look closely, however, and it makes perfect sense. There are a million stories flowing in and out of every airport every minute of the day; what better place for a born storyteller to set up shop?
Of course, the story at the heart of the film is no mere whimsy. Take a trip to Charles De Gaulle in Paris and you can see its flesh-and-blood inspiration - Merhan Karimi Nasseri, aka Sir Alfred, an Iranian refugee who arrived in 1988 without proper documents and has lived in the airport ever since. Spielberg sugars the pill by having Viktor travel to Manhattan, not as the victim of political persecution or as an economic migrant, but as an ordinary Joe with a personal mission to accomplish. Despite this, there's something inherently nightmarish about his lost, lonely plight that will surely send a shiver down the spine of any frequent flyer.
The nightmare doesn't last for long, though. Hanks may be stuck in NYC with no currency, no passport and no English; his fictional birthplace of Krakozhia might be in the grip of violent civil war; and a mean-spirited Homeland Security official (Stanley Tucci) may be hell-bent on shoving him into someone else's jurisdiction. But hey, you can still smile, right? Especially when your natural resourcefulness enables you to find a place to sleep, a well-paid job and even lurve with a klutzy flight attendant (Zeta-Jones, struggling to get a handle on a character who's more idealised fantasy figure than seasoned cart-pusher). And how does he express his affection? Why, by building a fountain from a disused latrine and a pile of broken crockery. Bet Michael Douglas never thought of that one...
If all this sounds too sweet for words, it is. (Doesn't Viktor have any relatives to go home to? What are they doing while he's swanning around the concourse in his dressing gown?) And Spielberg packs the overhead locker of sentiment even tighter by gifting Hanks an ethnically diverse posse of helpmates - a poker-playing luggage handler (Chi McBride), a lovestruck young food-service worker (Diego Luna) and a geriatric cleaner (Kumar Pallana) whose knack for juggling and glee at seeing passengers fall arse over tit provide the pic's funniest sight gags. Even Tucci is de-fanged, his by-the-book pen-pusher less a hard-hearted nemesis, more an out-and-out panto villain.
It's perhaps Spielberg's curse that he can't make a film without accentuating the positive: Minority Report, for example, began as a tale of Orwellian thought-police and ended as a paean to restored family unity. Here, though, his fundamental faith in human nature doesn't seem imposed from above but grows organically out of the material. To quote Sam Goldwyn, The Terminal has warmth and charmth; and while two hours seems indulgent for what is little more than a romantic fable, it's a testament to the skills of all involved that this is one airport you really don't mind being delayed in.
More Catch Me If You Can than Private Ryan, Spielberg and Hanks' third collaboration is a beguiling if overlong flight of feelgood fancy.