Terminal: a prison of Spielberg’s own
Lester Friedman in a well-written but often lightweight commentary of Spielberg’s words painted a much more pleasant picture of Terminal than the film deserves.
After Minority Report, AI even some aspects of Catch Me if You Can, Terminal seems deceptively cheerful. Yet as in every one of his films since Saving Private Ryan, Terminal seems to explore aspects of being held captive in his own life.
Stalked several times, Spielberg must have felt alienated even from his own country.
A flawed film, Terminal is remarkable charming – even though it continues to explore Spielberg’s most critical themes of abandonment and entrapment.
In some ways, it seems to reflect Spielberg’s personal vision of living his life surrounded by security.
Watching Terminal brings out an old expression about living one’s life in a fish bow.
Spielberg is one of the most public men in our society, a powerful media mogul who nearly every fan thinks he or she knows, yet in some ways – perhaps most ways – most of us know nothing about him.
In selecting a story about a man trapped in an terminal – unable to come or go, but simply exist day to day while finding ways to survive, Spielberg appears to be comment on his own life, how he has come so far to get where he is, only to find himself caught in the middle of a conflict that is in some ways bigger than he is.
The film story, as it goes, has a man from Eastern Europe arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York. We do not yet know that he is a mission to honor his deceased father’s memory, but only that when he arrives the hero – played by Tom Hanks – is halted by security because his country is in the middle of a civil war and the visa with which the hero enters the US is no longer valid.
He is forced to stay in the terminal until the matter is resolved, a wait that lasts for months as it turns out.
Friedman rightfully noted that critics panned Spielberg on several key pieces of this film, partly because of the unbelievable love story that takes place (Spielberg does not depict love or sex well in any of his films) and partly because this immigrant seems so middle class.
The critics, of course, fail to note that nearly all of Spielberg’s heroes in all of his films are middle class, because nearly all of them serve as alter egos for Spielberg, and Spielberg, despite his vast wealth is the very essence of middle class America, much in the same way Elvis was the essence of white poor in the South, and Frank Sinatra symbolic of urban poor.
Each hero in Spielberg films acts out some aspect of Spielberg’s life and fears.
Terminal fails as a political statement, despite efforts of the Hanks character to stand up against the evil terminal boss.
The boss simply isn’t evil enough. So that we don’t completely side with Hanks against him.
We admire the Hanks character. We even hope he achieves what he is after – even when we are left in the dark as to what that objective is until very late in the film. But we don’t come to love him in the same was as we might the hero in One Who Flew over the Coocoo’s Nest. We do not see Hank so much in fear for his life as inconvenienced. We don’t even believe he will remain a political prisoner forever.
Even Jamie, in Empire of the Sun, who faced greater peril, seems remote, even aloof, making it hard to connect with me in the audience so I might cheer him one.
This is true of the heroes in many of Spielberg’s heroes (the one notable exception being Indiana Jones) who come across a exotic curiosity we watch with fascination, but never really find an emotional connection to on a human level. Perhaps the most human of Spielberg heroes are Sheriff Broady from Jaws, the Dreyfus character from Close Encounters, and Elliot from ET.
Part of his disconnect may have to do with the fact that somewhere on some level we become aware of just how personal Spielberg’s films are, and how they are so filled with his personal conflicts, we find no room in them for the more universal connections we need. So we are left out.
As Spielberg works out the trauma of being trapped through the Hanks character, we look on like strangers.
And in this there is a kind of deeper sadness, a sense that perhaps we can see the real Spielberg behind the curtain, struggling with the mechanisms of the great Wizard of Oz with the hopes of tugging our the sympathy strings in our hearts. But as in the original story, we often see too clearly his efforts and fail to hear the more legitimate cry of loneliness behind Spielberg’s failed schemes.
This sense of story behind the story gives Terminals a darker feeling that the plot of the film works to convey, as if we see Spielberg, remote and sad, but cannot touch him or feel his emotional dismay, despite his best efforts at manipulating his characters.
Friedman’s somewhat hasty observation that women in Spielberg’s film tend to be shallow, undeveloped or play insignificant roles does apply in Terminal, though not in all Spielberg’s post turn of the century films.
Spielberg’s women are indeed often tom boy pals, or place holders in the faction filling in necessary spots in a development story line. But not always.
Spielberg’s fiction tends to present an adolescent world view, a vision of sexuality and love boys in their early teens often possess. In this, Spielberg shares with George Lucas, the same misconception of love and lust.
Spielberg, however, sometimes rises above this basic limitation as in Poltergeist where the hero is the mother not the father, and in one of Spielberg’s masterpieces, The Color Purple as Friedman correctly notes.
In films like Terminal, as well as Catch me if you can, we get something of a teenage boy’s wish fulfillment, as boy wins girl or by saving girl and becomes heroic.
Spielberg’s heroes don’t vary much. They are almost all sensitive males caught in situations where they must use their intellect to escape.
You don’t get macho males as hero because that is not how Spielberg sees himself. For a similar reason, Spielberg for the most part struggles to get out of his own world view in order to imagine a complex female character.
This is sharply different from George Lucas, who appears to live out his fantasies of becoming a macho male through characters such as Indiana Jones and Hans Solo.
Spielberg’s male supporting cast are also weak, pal-like more overgrown teenagers than grown up men.
In each film, the Spielberg hero bonds most solidly with other men, not women.
Even in AI we get a bonding between the AI boy and the gigolo, the teddy bear and other male substitute, forming the same kind of street corner society we find in Lucas’s American Graffiti.
In Spielberg films such as AI, the real violation comes when something threatens this male bonding such as when the aliens invade in War of the Worlds. The bonding scene – the early bar scene – was edited from the film, but its implications reverberate later in the Newark scenes where the buddies regather in time for the evil aliens to attack.
In Terminal, it is not the love story that is so important, but rather the growing relationship between the buddies playing poker. In Catch me if you can, the love scene with the hotel prostitute is classic teenage fantasy, but the important bonding occurs between father and son, and pursue and pursued. Terminal’s love story is equally fantasy – that of a geek patiently waiting for his chance to win the heart of the disillusioned knock out girl.
At the core of Terminal is the teen age brotherhood, the growing relationship between the men who discuss life, women and their woes. This is a standard scene in many Spielberg films such as Jaws, ET, Jurassic Park, Munich, and especially Saving Private Ryan.
Happy and sad endings depend totally on the fate of this male bonding. This is true in Terminal where the hero’s perseverance seems more important to winning the admiration of his male fiends than winning the heart of the love interest.
Male bonding – friends or father son – lay at the core of his and other Spielberg films, and horror for Spielberg appears to be when something interferes with this: Ray’s inability to reach in son in War of the Worlds, the Hanks character’s inability to come to resolution with the terminal manager, the hero in Catch Me if You Can’s inability to make his father happy, AI’s inability to connect with the father figure who brought him home.
In some ways, Terminal seems a throw back to earlier Spielberg films when he celebrating this male bonding in much more positive ways. But perhaps it is really a longing for a more innocent point of view that comes through, and it may be the great film maker is looking back at his own life and his collection of friends, and taking comfort from the past while at the same time living in a fish bowl, visible but isolated by his own fame.