Tom Hanks is an actor with screen presence. Not the in-your-face, macho man, action-figure kind of presence, but a rarer ability that allows him to bring to life ordinary, believable characters who face personal struggles and conflict.
His latest role is no different. It's loosely based on the experience of Iranian refugee Merhan Nasseri who has been detained in the Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris since 1988.
In The Terminal, Hanks plays the part of Viktor Navorski. While he is flying to New York City, rebels overthrow his small European country and oust the leadership. As a result, his passport is no longer valid when he lands at JFK Airport. With all flights cancelled to his homeland he can't return, and without the proper traveling papers he can't enter the United States. Instead, security officers hustle him off to the international transit lounge, hand him a few food vouchers and tell him to wait until someone figures out what to do.
That responsibility falls to Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), an airport director who's gunning to fill the shoes of his retiring superior and is in no mood to deal with the language-challenged passenger. Although he's given Viktor strict instructions to stay inside, he secretly hopes the visitor will make a run for the doors and become someone else's problem.
Unfortunately for him, Viktor is willing to play by the rules. Finding a spot to sleep in a construction area near Gate 67, he settles down for the night. But the hours turn into days, then weeks and months without any sign of help from immigration officials. Still every morning, Viktor washes up, shaves and goes about his life, waiting for a page from the director. Along the way he gets a job, studies English, makes friends (Kumar Pallana, Chi McBride, Diego Luna) and falls in love with a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Pulling off a two-hour script without the aid of a single gunshot or car chase may seem impossible. But using creative cinematography and moments of perfect pacing, Director Steven Spielberg focuses on the patience and persistence of a man who is unwilling to bargain with his integrity or give up on his mission. Relying on his own ingenuity, Viktor manages to survive, and even thrive at times, in the tiny, confined American microcosm while he waits for his freedom. Meanwhile, Frank doggedly holds to the rulebook, unable even for a minute to see the role compassion could play in his bureaucratic world.
Limited appeal to young audience members and brief use of expletives will likely be the biggest concerns for parents. (In one scene, Viktor repeatedly mispronounces an English word making it a profanity.) But for older teens and adults, this film offers a peek into the lives of the faceless, everyday employees who keep airline passengers moving on their way. It also illustrates that for passengers with the right attitude, even long layovers don't have to be terminal.