Monday, May 2, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXVIII: Yes, "geniality" is one of my metrics for these things


A movie I'm apparently not supposed to love at all, but it turns out I do anyway.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson, and Andrew Niccol
With Tom Hanks (Victor Navorski), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Amelia Warren), Kumar Pallana (Gupta), Chi McBride (Mulroy), Diego Luna (Enrique Cruz), Zoe Saldana (Dolores Torres), Barry Shabaka Henley (Thurman), and Stanley Tucci (Frank Dixon)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Poor The Terminal.  You are not well-liked.  Sometimes you are even described as Steven Spielberg's very worst film.  It's just not fair, is it?  But, of course, it is extremely easy to see why you've fallen into disfavor—hell, that's trivial.

For starters, The Terminal is precisely what people mean when they use the adjective "Spielbergian" as a pejorative: look up the definition for that term in your Dictionary For People Who Hate Movies, and you'll find that poster with Tom Hanks looking forlorn printed right next to it.  Look it up on the online version, and it'll play a clip of Hanks' cartoon Foreignlandian accent.

It's a movie that announces, very loudly, that it shall attempt to push your emotional buttons, then sets about doing just that, sometimes in an extraordinarily clumsy way—most especially in an intuitive, image-intensive, and psychotically illogical ending, that feels like it probably wasn't even conventionally "scripted" in the first place (and certainly didn't go through more than one draft).  But while the film slaps its flailing hands in the general direction of your buttons, it also does its level best to keep the proceedings altogether lighthearted, despite its premise bearing a remarkable resemblance to another Hanks vehicle, namely Cast Away.

And does it have a weird attitude about women?  An attitude that is not decidedly offensive, yet remains sort of dismissive as well as deeply suspicious simultaneously?  My girlfriend says yes, and I guess she'd know, and I'm inclined to agree.  But that's nothing compared to how, in the final act of this largely-actless film, The Terminal's interesting, ethnically-diverse cast is turned into a collection of props dedicated to the greater glory of its hero.  If you forgive the questionable racial dynamics, it's still kind of messed up.  Indeed, even when you accept that this is simply an unavoidable outcome of watching practically any Steven Spielberg movie (hell, including Schindler's List, when you get down to it), the outright shocking disregard in The Terminal for anyone who's not a protagonist hasn't hit this hard since Close Encounters.  And Close Encounters, in case you forgot, is a movie where the happy ending is a man abandoning his children forever.  Well, once again, abandonment looms large; and here, as there, Spielberg does not appear to have so much as consciously noticed.

It's all on top of a movie that was inspired by a true story, but changes every detail of the story that could possibly get in the way of Spielbergian simplicity—which, in the end, amounts to "all of the details, except for the part where a man lives in an airport."

But "Spielbergian" isn't a swear word around these parts.  Here, we take the sour with the (saccharine) sweet.

So, since I've been referring to the plot without properly summarizing it first, let's get down to it: Victor Navorski is a traveler from the small made-up Eastern European nation of Krakozhia.  (My guesswork places Krakozhia somewhere in the former Soviet Union, though, obviously, it doesn't remotely matter.)  We meet Victor as he arrives in New York City—ah, but let me correct myself!  We meet Victor as he arrives at JFK International Airport.

This is an important distinction.

You see, in between the time his flight departed his homeland and the time he's gotten to U.S. customs, Krakozhia has been rocked by a military coup, and Victor's passport has been voided.  He cannot enter the U.S.  He cannot return home.  However, since he's actually violated no law, he can't be arrested, either.  This is the situation as explained to him, in a language he barely comprehends, by JFK's Homeland Security commandant (and part-time uptight dean), Stanley Dixon, a man whose gloriously gleaming dome and record of service have jointly earned him the prospect of an impending promotion.  Unfortunately for his career, he's now confronted with a Hanks-shaped monkey wrench, who's presently bivouacked in an unused departure gate at his airport.  And this is most irregular—Dixon had assumed Victor would try to run for it once he understood his situation (because who wouldn't?), and thereby become someone else's problem.

Well, Dixon can dream, but he's not going to do anything too rash—and to his credit, he wants this kill to be clean.  And so the lowest-key battle of wits begins between a borderline-competent DHS bureaucrat and a man who doesn't speak English, has no money, and (at first) has no friends, but faces his plight with the kind of almost zenlike optimism that could only be channeled through the likes of an actorly demigod like this film's star.

In the meantime, though, we find Victor living his life, struggling with the daily challenges of bathing, learning the local lingo, and (most pressingly) acquiring food.  In the process, he becomes a local institution.  He gains the trust and respect of what amounts to a smalltown community, and even enters into a cautious flirtation with a flight attendant named Amelia, who's had her problems with men (especially the married one she's sleeping with these days) but takes a shine to Victor for reasons that are hard for her to describe—it simply must be his purity.  After all, only the purest heart in the world would have come to America to do what Victor intends to do (and shall not leave until he does), which is to complete a quest that, on its very face, is both preposterously stupid and almost pointless, and yet, in its way, beautiful.

It is, of course, some of the most terrifyingly contrived bullshit ever—like I said, it's very easy to understand why most folks aren't fans.  But none of The Terminal's endless contrivances, nor its gross inaccuracies, are in any way important, because The Terminal is clearly not some coldblooded legal procedural where fealty to reality would matter.

No, foremost it's a comedy—a comedy with spikes, especially in the first half-hour, where Victor speaks no real English, he's learning of the turmoil in his native land for the first time, and it seems like his actual life might well be at stake—but it's a comedy all the same, often making detours into outright farce, intimately concerned with the sheer absurdity of our borders and rules, not to mention the mean-minded little dickweeds we've appointed to administrate them.  Simultaneously, and by the very same means, it becomes a full-throated celebration of our diversity, too—as a nation if not as a whole human species.  And both themes are always intermingled with Victor's low-impact tale of survival, as well as with his reasonably compelling character drama, which encompasses his unlikely friendships and his even less-likely romance.

Happily, it's extremely funny—and, you know, I could've began and ended with that, since that's what makes all the difference in the world.  It's not just Spielberg's single funniest movie; it's also the closest he's ever gotten to a pure comedy without also accidentally setting himself on fire.  The Terminal takes Victor's deceptively-oblivious demeanor and turns it into laughs, long after this should have gotten old.  As you might imagine, it's already reasonably clear just from the premise (and it's made clearer still both by Hanks' participation generally and a whole lot of specific choices that Hanks makes in the portrayal) that Forrest Gump must have been on Spielberg's mind while directing this.  (And if Spielberg wasn't aware of the influence, then the graphic artists who made the film's other poster absolutely were.)  Well, whether beknownst to him or not, we find the director successfully capturing a more easygoing brand of Zemeckian zaniness—yet much the same kind of zaniness which, years earlier and in another, purer form, had betrayed him completely, when he directed his old friend's unpleasantly-shrill script for 1941.  There are bits in The Terminal that go back further, too.  Many sequences play like something straight out of a silent film—and you can bet your ass if Chaplin had made this exact same movie in 1935, only without dialogue, then people would like it more.  But anyway, that security camera gag is as priceless as any comic beat in any Spielberg film.

Meanwhile—and this almost reaches the level of "courageous"—Spielberg tests himself in the other field he'd traditionally shown nearly complete ineptitude in.  Obviously, I mean dramatizing a relationship between a man and a woman.  Outside of the Indy films—and, really, I mean "that one Indy film"—this has always been the bear that kept chasing the director down.  It's also always been the bear to whom the director had typically sacrificed his unimportant female leads, in order to get away.  And I suppose it's not that very different here, but in The Terminal he lucks out.  The film features the most successful meet-cute—hell, it's virtually the only "meet-cute"—in the Spielberg canon, alongside the most interesting couple since Raiders itself.  Together, Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones pull off a tricky interplay—it's as overdetermined as all hell—with an appealingly subliminal kind of chemistry.  (It's a Spielberg film, recall: so if they do ever fuck, you can guess it's bound to be buried in implication.)  Their heartwarming acting easily overcomes some seriously awkward lines, especially on Zeta-Jones' part—and, when it comes to Zeta-Jones, she even manages to round out a character whose only real trait is a borderline personality disorder.

Pictured: Zeta-Jones being effortlessly charming.  (Not pictured: her intermittent inability to play "clumsiness" without obviously chucking her eyeglasses in Hanks' general direction.)

It adds up to a bittersweet subplot, but a strong subplot all the same—Victor's highly visual token of his love, well-befitting a Spielberg joint, is gold.  So, just as The Terminal blows 1941 out of the water, it likewise overcomes the actively-annoying tepidity of Always, Spielberg's only other real, abiding effort at trying to capture the affection of two potential sexual partners.

But maybe the most important thing about The Terminal is that it all takes place in this airport, and the rendition of JFK is one of the single most amazing bespoke sets you'll ever see—an enormous, sprawling, expensive, physical, and immersive space, just a little too beautified within Janusz Kaminski's gratifyingly-normal cinematography to feel truly real, but granted just the right mixture of modernist gleam and post-modernist messiness to serve as Victor's whimsical world, in what amounts to a tale soaked in an understated but enduring strain of magical realism.  (Indeed, more than anything else at all, I suspect it's The Terminal's thoroughgoing fantasy that really got under people's skin, considering its status as a film about airports in an America still scarred by 9/11.  I concede that perhaps it plays better now than it did then.)

Taken altogether, The Terminal presents a movie microcosm of our contemporary world: an atomized, hyperbranded neoliberal hellhole whose most famous denizen is a hobo collecting carts for quarters, a constrained space representing the slightly less-constrained space that we all live in.  Yet it becomes, through the injection of a little Spielbergian wonder, a kaleidoscopic melting pot, made of promise and undying hope.  So welcome to America, Victor, you poor son of a bitch; this is the country that couldn't even give designer Alex McDowell a nomination for an Academy Award.  How do you think you'll fare?

The sole serious problem the film has is bound up, exclusively, with that aforementioned ending. It's the kind of blaring emotionalism that we who love Spielberg tend to adore.  And, yes, here we find the very fabric of the universe itself bending around the noble will of its simple hero, not entirely unlike the revelation of Neo's powers in The Matrix.  Of course, this deep into the film, The Terminal has naturally already evinced a few problems in wrangling its extended cast; but it's only in its very final moments that its blindered focus ever goes badly wrong.

Yet even in The Terminal's most stridently illogical moments, there's still a poetry to Spielberg's imagery, not to mention John Williams' adorably-manipulative score, and I can't deny it.  Thus it may not be major Spielberg to anybody else—but it puts a smile on my face, to find a classic here, buried beneath twelve years of scorn.

Score:  9/10

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