Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Terminal

I remember watching the reports on Channel 4's The Word back in the early 90s about Iranian refugee Merhan Nasseri, the man who had taken up residence in Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988 when local immigration authorities refused him entry after his passport and United Nations refugee certificate were stolen. Amazingly, he's still there.

Spielberg has refashioned Nasseri's permanent statelessness into a more finite and sugar-coated three act comedy about a visitor to the Big Apple from the brown-tie boondocks, whose fictional war-torn homeland Krakozhia evaporates just as his feet arrive behind the yellow line at US Immigration. (After some consular lobbying the scriptwriters decided it would not after all be such a great idea for Viktor to hail from EU-member Slovenia, the 'Switzerland of Eastern Europe')

The movie's greatest inadequacies are some underwritten second-tier parts and a failure to really capture the atmosphere and daily rhythms of an airport terminal in quite the same way that Lost in Translation captured those of a big chain business hotel.

It's also a bit of a monster product placement exercise; Burger King and Borders do especially well. In fact there are more shops in this dummied up departure lounge than I remember in the airports of Houston, Miami and LA combined.

However, Hanks could so easily have been a whole lot more annoying in this role. In the end his performance is almost touching. When required to talk foreign, he babbles away in Bulgarian, probably coached by his wife Margarita Ibrahimova.

These scenes reminded me of a now legendary conversation V once had with two Bulgarians and a young man from Malawi. The Bulgarians were training in the UK with our company as part of a programme funded by the Foreign Office. The more materialistic of the pair, Assen, decided to conduct a small private survey on the relative per-capita rewards in the developing countries represented around the dinner table that night:

"How much is the celery in your country?" he asked V.

Not realising that he was referring to gross monthly income V enthusiastically reported the cheapness of apio in the Antigua's vegetable market as Assen's eyes widened. The next cross-cultural misunderstanding that evening occured shortly afterwards. The man from Malawi was left sporting an equally incredulous look, convinced that V had just informed him that "in my country the Gorillas carry guns and shoot people."

When The Terminal ends I was quite surprised that Viktor doesn't get the girl, a state of affairs that seems unusually downbeat in the context of Spielberg's oeuvre. ButI had noted something awkward about the scene transitions in the last act, and later discovered that these can be explained by the re-scripting of the last part of Viktor's story which took place after early screenings. So I would expect to find Catherine Zeta Jones's character in Viktor's arms in the alternative ending on Disk 2 of the DVD set.

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