The interminable Terminal


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Although the subject of sharp disagreement with one of my dearest and most knowledgeable friend, Terminal – for me – has only two minor dark spots in an otherwise extremely bright film.

One flaw is more fundamental than the other, but neither was so obtrusive as to keep me from enjoying the film.

This, of course, was not the case for my close friend with whom I have had numerous differences concerning films by Steven Spielberg but few so passionately presented as over Terminal and Artificial Intelligence.

I much prefer Terminal; my friend – a Stanley Kubrick fan – prefers AI. While my support for Terminal tends to be much more ardent than my friend’s support for AI, we both view feel very strongly in our dislike for the other films.

Whereas I have since gone back to AI three or four times after my initial inability to tolerate it on first viewing, my friend refused to sit through Terminal or return to it to see if his initial assessment was correct.

AI seemed to get better with subsequent viewings, although the basic flaws I saw during the initial viewing remained with additional and much more substantial flaws marking it – by far -- as my least favorite Spielberg endeavors.

The concept of Terminal – supposedly based on a real incident -- is relatively simple: a man from one of the former Soviet states arrives at the New York City airport just as a revolution occurs in his country. Because the status of his national government is unknown, he cannot be allowed into the United States.

The central character, played by Tom Hanks, cannot leave either since technically the country he came from no longer exists. He must remain in the terminal until the crisis is resolved. If he leases the terminal, he will be imprisoned.

The initial problem airport officials have is explaining these facts to the Hanks character since he has arrived in the United States knowing no English.

While this could have been a remarkably delightful plot complication, it creates something of a rippling effect through the rest of the film – especially because this foreshadows the central plot reversal of the film that later allows our hero to become the hero of the work force in the film later.

Fiction requires some amount of suspended disbelief. But in this case, anyone remotely familiar with New York City can not possibly accept the fact that the airport personnel lack access to a Russian interpreter. With the UN located nearly within site of Kennedy Airport runways and the hundreds if not thousands of federal workers who had daily dealings with the world’s second largest nation, someone could have made a phone call to someone and had a Russian speaking somebody at the airport to help translate.

This might have been more believable set in some more remote metropolis such as Atlanta or Dallas, where Russian might as well be Martian for all anybody there cares.

This language issue somewhat ties into our second structural flaw.

Chris – one of the great admirers of AI – pointed out the more fundamental flaw in Terminal in a review he did for his film critics club, noting that the film introduced a critical element – the Tom Hanks’ characters search for jazz signatures – far too late in the film, making it seem almost like an after thought, when in reality this aspect is the central motivation for the character and we would get an even greater emotional bang for our $8 movie ticket if we knew his mission from near the beginning rather than where we find out about it in the concluding third of the film.

The Hanks character had come to New York to complete the collection of signatures of jazz greats his father had started to collect via snail mail, but had died before getting the last one he needed.  The Hanks character, in tribute to his father, had come to collect that last signature.

Relocating the situation to someplace like Chicago and the intended Jazz performer to a night club there might have helped solve the language translation issue, yet leaves the structural flaw. Had we learned of the characters motive early in the film, we would have cheered him on with greater enthusiasm, and my friend, who disliked the film, might have been motivated to watch it to its conclusion drawn in by whether or not Hanks’ character will be able to fulfill his promise to his dead father.

These two flaws did not dampen my interest in the film since I found the story provocative on several levels, and followed it with great interest despite my minor objections.

Part of the attraction is the nearly science fiction premise of the story, pitting our character against a hostile environment that could have easily been set on the moon. He is faced with and overcomes numerous obstacles that kept me into the story.

While Spielberg’s pacing at times seems sluggish and at other times rushed, Terminal becomes a study of character and character conflicts rather than a resolved plot.

Perhaps my friend – who is an avid science fiction fan – would have like Terminal had it been a science fiction film since the structure so closely resembles one.

Placed in on an alien world how does a character, eat, find shelter, or communicate with others? These are the issues the Hanks character faces and resolves. He converts an unused portion of the terminal into a bedroom. He learns food can be acquired free through crackers and condiments. He eventually learns he can make money by returning carts for the quarter deposit.  But more than that, he learns the local language through the use of television and periodicals, and once he learns this, discovers the horror of his country’s fate.

He, of course, has to deal with the ultimate social issue as well – which brings us to the point Spielberg was likely making when he made this film. Working against our hero is the head of the airport, who sees our hero as a problem to his career and seeks to force our hero to break the law so he becomes the problem of federal authorities instead who will give him a new home in a much smaller space called a jail cell. At one point, this bureaucratic fascist even order the guards to leave the door unwatched so that our hero would escape and get arrested. But the Hanks character may not speak English well, but that doesn’t make him stupid, and he warily takes note of the security camera following his every move. Thus he chooses to remain inside the Terminal.

As time passes, he makes some reluctant friends among the staff, something that will play an important role later in the film when he must make a choice about cooperating with the oppressor or remaining loyal to other souls who pain he understands.

The decisive moment in the film comes when the terminal chief needs our hero’s services to help translate for another former Soviet soul who is desperately trying to transport necessary prescription drugs that will help save his father’s life.

In a comment on the ludicrous nature of American drug regulations that seem to have been written by the top executives of pharmaceutical industry, the airport bureaucrat seeks to take the drugs away from the former Soviet and needs our hero to communicate with the former Soviet for the express purpose of having the man admit he is bringing the drugs in illegally.

But our hero, who has read up on his law after learning our language, helps his former comrade by telling him to claim the drugs are for farm animals not humans, thereby taking advantage of a loop hole in the law that would allow such drugs to pass through the airport when drugs that would benefit human beings could not.

Once the former Soviet says the drugs are for animals, the airport bureaucrat is helpless to stop the man from continuing on, despite the fact he knows the drugs will be used to help alleviate the pain of a suffering human being.

This is a powerful film message in an era when the federal government has impose new regulations concerning prescription drugs plans for senior citizens, making pharmaceutical companies wealthy at the expense of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

Our hero’s refusal to give into this new type of modern fascism makes an even more lethal enemy out of the airport bureaucrat, who is now committed to do getting revenge.

But new of the act of kindness reached other people – the underpaid and overworked people doing the most undesirable jobs that “real” Americans would never do – for whom our hero became their hero, and began to work on his behalf.

Fortunately, this event happened in New York not Miami otherwise the governor might have called out the National Guard to put down the rebellion.

Flawed or not, Terminal is about revolution, about striking back at the system of justice that is systematically unjust, and the perfect counter to all of those insane Chuck Norris fantasy movies that paint counter revolutionaries has heroes instead of thugs, and Spielberg lives up to a Hollywood tradition of fighting back against the system by pointing out its most outrageous habits. This, of course, hardly has the impact Spielberg’s Munich will have, but in its way, its sends a message and even as we laugh over some of the bumbling our main character does, we begin to think about the issue of fairness in our society.


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