If Charlie Chaplin was still alive and creating, it’s easy to imagine him making a light comedy as richly satisfying as The Terminal. Just as Chaplin used to take a prop and wring every possible gag out of it, Steven Spielberg’s prop is a New York airport terminal from which he extracts every story possibility. And Spielberg’s Chaplin is Tom Hanks, who takes a potentially show-offy, Meryl Streep-type role and turns it into a movie character for the ages.
Hanks’ role is Viktor Navorski, a European immigrant who becomes a modern-day “man without a country” when his native land gets embroiled in a revolution. Viktor can’t return home because his country is under siege, and he can’t legally enter New York until his country’s new leadership is recognized by the U.S. So Viktor has no choice but to live in the terminal — much to the consternation of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), whose chances of becoming the terminal’s top dog are jeopardized by Viktor’s constantly being under foot.
The movie’s premise is laid out pretty flatly in the first ten minutes, which begins to sink one’s hopes. But it’s as though Spielberg wants to get the mandatory stuff out of the way quickly so he can explore all of the possibilities in his huge playtoy. And he spins Viktor through every facet of the terminal like a colorful top, involving the terminal’s quirky workers in his meager existence.
In that sense, The Terminal is a lot like Being There (1979), where Peter Sellers played an illiterate simpleton on whom politicians projected their needs and desires. But Hanks is far from a blank slate. His body language, physical comedy, and deceptively simple dialogue speak volumes. Chaplin regretted having to give up silent movies because he felt that his “Little Tramp” could not express himself uniquely with sound. I think something like The Terminal would have been an effective solution.
That’s not to belittle Hanks’ winning co-stars, especially Catherine Zeta-Jones as Viktor’s potential love interest and Chi McBride as one of Viktor’s many supporters. They all give Spielberg’s work the sheen of a big, beautiful dream.