Saturday 5 July 2008

The Terminal (2004)

In comes flight 935 from Beijing to New York and with it comes Viktor Navorski from Krakozhia who is promptly caught up in a very bizarre situation. While he was in the air his country underwent a military coup, thus leaving him a citizen of a country that technically doesn't exist any more. The New York immigration people can't allow him into the US because his visa is no longer valid but they can't let him go home either. Therefore he's a free man who can go anywhere he likes, as long as it's within the International Transit Lounge of the airport.

Frank Dixon, from Customs and Immigration Services, tells him that he's sure that Uncle Sam will have this sorted out by tomorrow, but naturally the speed of government prohibits that, and if it was that easy we wouldn't have a film. Viktor Navorski is naturally stuck in the International Transit Lounge for a long time and we get to watch him discover a way to earn money, learn the language, make friends and effectively find a life while Dixon tries to find a way to make him someone else's problem. He even finds time to romance Catherine Zeta Jones.

Steven Spielberg hit on a winner here. I've long had a problem with Tom Hanks being serious because he's just so funny I'm conditioned to not seeing him any other way. He's made me laugh in so many comedies that I find myself laughing whenever I see him. The fact that he's so damn good at it can only help. When he tries to do a serious film about say, someone dying of AIDS, I end up laughing my ass off and that's not good. What makes this film genius is that he gets to be a serious character in a serious situation and deal with serious issues, but be completely hilarious in the process. And I don't have to feel like I'm doing a bad thing.

Hanks is awesome here. Unlike most characters in comedy films, even most lead characters in comedy films, he has depth and purpose and meaning. In fact he has more of those things than most lead characters in most serious dramas who are supposed to be full of them. He's one of those characters who makes a difference to everyone around him and it's impossible not to care about him. He really ought to resonate well beyond the two hours plus that we see him on screen, and no I don't mean in a sequel.

The supporting cast is full of faces that we know but names that we don't. Catherine Zeta-Jones is recognisable of course, and she fleshes out the other half of the unconventional romance very well indeed. Stanley Tucci does a great job as a very capable prick. People like Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Kumar Pallana and Zoe Saldana provide depth to their own supporting characters. Pallana in particular gets an awesome moment to shine when he needs to delay a flight.

Everything hinges on the story though, and this joyfully doesn't play like a Hollywood story at all, mostly in how situations find or don't find resolution. The story is by Andrew Niccol and Sacha Gervasi, with a screenplay by Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson. Because it feels so much like a European film, I checked up the movie connections expecting to find that it was a remake, merely one that wasn't massacred in the way that most such things are. It isn't a remake, but it is inspired by the same real life story as a French film from 1993 called Tomb├ęs du ciel. The source may be the same but the story appears to be very different, written by Michel Ganz and the director Phillipe Lioret. It would be fascinating to find that film, which from the synopsis sounds like a cross between this film and Luc Besson's Subway.

The real story that both films are inspired by belongs to Merhan Nasseri, who was a refugee from Iran whose passport and UN refugee certificate had apparenty been stolen thus causing difficulty in officially identifying him. He ended up staying in Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years, initially because Kafkaesque bureacracy provided no other option, but finally left in 2006 when he was hospitalised. There are major differences to the stories of Nasseri and Navorski though, that go way beyond only one of them romancing Catherine Zeta Jones. Nasseri was eventually granted permission both to enter France or to return home to Belgium, where he had previously been living, but he simply chose not to do so, remaining in Terminal One and telling his story to anyone who would listen. He even signed autographs for people when a book of his diaries was published and sold at a newsstand next to his 'home'.

This isn't a perfect film by any means. There are plot holes, there's dubious logic and there are instances where the thing is overdone, but it's by and large a fascinating character study that tugs at the heartstrings while firing the imagination. While a sequel would not be a good idea, there's huge room for all sorts of further material inspired by the same source story. It would seem that others fall into the same bureaucratic nightmares and I can well believe it. I was detained once by US immigration, albeit for about ten minutes, because the visa clerk couldn't believe that I could work somewhere that would allow me three months off to travel round the States. I could see a lot of short stories that use this sort of setting as another subculture to mix with others.

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