Steven Spielberg has always seemed to find his stories in the interstices of great events. He made his holocaust film from Thomas Keneally's microcosmic novel of that curious and duplicitous (to the Nazis) man Oskar Schindler; he focused his D-Day film "Saving Private Ryan" on the search for the last remaining son of a Gold Star Mother. The pathological creature Frank Abagnale Jr. became the star of the strange comic film "Catch Me If You Can." And now Spielberg deals with the question of trapped and stateless people by making it into the story of how a man finds himself a home in the food court and shops of the International Arrivals building at JFK. Though this is not exactly trivializing momentous issues, it does at least cap them artistically, so that they do not overwhelm us; we can still surround them with our own carapace, put them in a cabinet and file them away. He entertains rather than argues, and his new film "The Terminal" is his current example. It isn't too much of an overstatement to say that he spins blood into sugar.
"The Terminal" stars Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski, entering the United States on a personal visit from his fictitious eastern European country of Krakozia just as a coup destroys the country's government, leaving Viktor essentially stateless until the United States decides to recognize the new regime. The terminal's director of security, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), keeps Viktor in limbo by not letting him out of the building until the issue is settled. Viktor, who speaks no English and can only say "One seven one Lexington, Ramada," isn't much help. Prohibited from leaving the building, Viktor begins making a life for himself there, including a friendship with aging United flight attendant Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and with a few of the workers in the building.
Slowly he teaches himself English, joins in card games with the workers, makes friends with Dolores (Zoe Saldana), an immigration officer who each day stamps 'DENIED' on his application, until - acting as Cyrano to Enrique (Diego Luna), a kitchen worker in love with Dolores - he persuades her to accept Enrique's marriage proposal. He watches Gupta, the janitor (Kumar Pallana), who loves to see people ignore the yellow 'wet floor' markers and slip on their asses. "It's my only pleasure in life," he tells Viktor.
So why is Viktor here in the first place? We don't find that out until the end, but in the course of the film, and his many encounters with Mr. Dixon and his officers, there emerges a kind of truce that allows Viktor to remain reasonably happy in the building. When it turns out that he is a brilliant carpenter, a local contractor even hires him under the table to work on remodeling the building.
Hanks does a remarkable job of staying well within the limits of his character; he is a most thoughtful actor, with a much wider range than many give him credit for. But all of this begs the larger questions, of citizenship and freedom and refuge; in fact the ultimate resolution of the film relies on something totally different, and completely personal for Viktor. It's Spielberg's way, but it ends up weakening the film, and denying the issue.