With the US election looming, I wanted to put together a little post on one of Spielberg’s most subtly political and under-rated films: The Terminal.
On the surface, The Terminal seems like a jolly caper starring Tom Hanks on top comic form, but dig a little deeper and there’s a lot more substance to it.
Made in 2004, The Terminal is a defence of immigration and a plea for the return of the American Dream in the post 9/11 dream. It finds Hanks’ Viktor Navorski arriving at JFK airport just as a violent revolution has taken place in his home country Krakozhia.
The revolution means Navorski’s passport is not valid, so he can’t enter America. He can’t leave either, so he is stuck in the airport with nothing but a small suitcase of luggage and a tin, which contains his late father’s collection of Jazz autographs. Viktor has come to America to get Benny Golson’s autograph and complete his father’s collection.
Viktor find himself trapped in the airport, a hell of clean, false whites and endless shops and superstores. It is an alien and alienating place, perfectly captured by Spielberg’s isolated long shots and Janusz Kaminski’s cold cinematography.
Viktor’s stay in the airport presents a problem for CBP Head Frank Dixon, who is on the verge of a promotion, but needs to find a way to get rid of Viktor. The two repeatedly butt heads, with Dixon doing everything in his power to abandon Viktor, no matter the cost.
What Spielberg presents then is an innocent lost boy who should find the protection he needs from a paternal America. Instead, he is manipulated and cheated by a beurocratic system that doesn’t care about his rights and needs, only in making money.
During his stay in the airport, Viktor becomes something of a self-made man. He finds a job helping construction workers and gradually starts to make enough money to eat and learn fluent English. He becomes, in other words, the living embodiment of the American Dream.
He also meets a group of other immigrants and minorities: Customs and Border Protection officer Dolores, catering car driver Enrique and janitor Gupta. He becomes their friend, and helps each one of them out, notably setting Dolores and Enrique up on a date. They later get married.
Viktor becomes the comforting paternal figure that America should be, but isn’t. Yet he chooses not to stay. The film ends with Viktor escaping the airport and getting Golson’s autograph. His final line is to ask to be taken home.
I find The Terminal such a powerful film because behind the comedy, it contains a very explicit message about tolerance and communication. It insists that America’s cultural melting pot is not something to be feared (as it became after 9/11), but something to be embraced. It’s certainly something I’ve always admired about the States.
With the US seeming more conflicted about the major issues and divided by race and nationality than ever, I think The Terminal contains a vital message, one that I hope is heeded at the polling stations next week.