The Terminal (2004)


The Terminal is probably not a great film, but I love it.  I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s an uplifting story about people getting together, like in a melting pot.  The airport is not the real world, just an introduction to the kinds of people who might be in the real world, so the communal situation created by the end of the movie is more of a fantasy than a reality.  Sometimes that fantasy is a fun place to spend some time.

I think I’ve always had fantasies about getting stuck inside a place like an airport, a mall, a baseball stadium, etc.  There’s part of me that would enjoy exploring that ‘world,’ particularly because there’s never a question of survival.  It’s like a break from the real world, but you have to reacquaint yourself with the new rules of this new place.  As a kid I enjoyed making forts with pillows and blankets, so seeing Viktor’s assembled bed was a bit thrilling.  As a kid I would have loved to try to scrape together some sort of life, but again with no real consequences.  Viktor is homeless, but he’s homeless in a place where it’s safe to be homeless.

Viktor is a citizen of the fictional Eastern European country Krakohzia, and he’s stuck in the international terminal at JFK airport because his country started a civil war while his flight was in the air.  For around 9 months he is stuck in the airport, and while there he develops relationships with a bunch of the people who work in the airport, of all different ethnicities.  Viktor is an empathetic character who is nice to practically everyone.  He’s a very good person, and he’s meant to be easy to identify with.  We’re supposed to root for him from the first minute we see him.  He’s a nice guy who is the victim of circumstance and under the thumb of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) the guy in charge of the airport.  Frank is a bit lenient towards Viktor’s situation, but he really just wants to get rid of him.  In one instance he encourages Viktor to leave the terminal when the door is purposefully unguarded.  What Viktor doesn’t know is that he will still be in trouble when he leaves, he just won’t be Frank’s problem.  Then, when Frank realizes he can get Viktor into New York City by having him confess that he’s afraid for his safety in Krakhohzia, Viktor refuses to life.  Viktor is just an all around great guy, and Frank is the villain.

So this movie operates in broad strokes.  Viktor is great, his friends are great, nothing is taken too seriously, he gets a job as a contractor within the airport, he helps a guy and girl get married, he develops a romance with Catherine Zeta Jones and Frank is just trying to ruin the party.  I know it’s not a great film, but I was rooting for Viktor nonetheless.  In fact, I was more excited watching Viktor devise ways to make money in the airport than I was to see him actually leave the airport at the end of the movie.

The movie started to lose its way a little when we receive the ‘important’ moment between Viktor and Catherine Zeta Jones’ character, Amelia, a flight attendant who runs into him multiple times in the film.  Amelia is never a very well developed character.  All we know about her is her occupation, she’s having an affair with a married man and she often gets herself in trouble by believing men to be who she wants them to be, rather than seeing them for who they are.  This last detail feels a little forced as it’s the only explanation for why she inexplicably falls in love with Viktor.  Of course he’s not who he seems, because she has no idea he’s living in the terminal.  But they never spend too much time together, so I never put too much weight on their relationship.  It’s cute and playful, that’s it.  But then there’s a scene in which Frank pulls her aside and tells her that Viktor lives in the airport.  She approaches him, and she’s super serious so you know this is supposed to be a big deal, but it’s not.  The film hasn’t earned this moment, but it shoots for it anyway.  Why would she be so mad that Viktor never told her about his life in the terminal?  It’s not his fault he’s stuck, and they had dinner together once.  It’s not like you started a family with a guy and then found out he’s a serial killer.

The drama in this scene isn’t very believable, and that’s partly made clear because it dissipates so immediately.  Viktor tells her why he’s going to New York (to get a Jazz musician’s signature, thud fulfilling a promise made to his deceased father), and she’s completely swayed.

The third act of this film becomes a little too sentimental, and yet I did find myself rooting for Viktor to get to New York just like every employee at the airport cheered for him to get out.  I guess sometimes you just want to see the good guys win.

So Viktor gets to New York, aided by every employee, and he leaves the airport just before Frank can catch him.  Viktor visits the lounger where Benny Golson plays and gets his signature, completing his father’s last wish.

I think a lot of people might have trouble with Tom Hanks accent which feels a little thin, but I got used to it pretty quickly.  Maybe seeing Hanks play a European character is hard to believe, but if you can believe that, you can believe everything that happens in the story.  This story is loosely based on a guy who was similarly stuck in Charles De Gaulle airport in 1988, but I’m pretty sure that guy didn’t have as fulfilling a social life as Viktor has here.  I don’t even think my social life is as fulfilling as Viktor’s.

If there’s a theme to this story, it’s waiting.  I’m not really sure there’s much here to be analyzed other than I suppose everyone is waiting on something?  We’re all in some sort of transition or we all feel stuck somewhere.  Amelia expresses frustration with her life, as if she’s running in place, mainly because she doesn’t expect her love interest to leave his wife.  Another traveler, shaving in the bathroom alongside Viktor, makes a joke about feeling like you’re living in airport due to excessive travel.  Then you have Gupta (Kumar Pallana) a janitor who escaped India after nearly killing a police officer in 1979.  His life is on hold as well, and he just tries to live quietly while doing his job in the terminal.

Even Frank is stuck, expressing some resentment towards his job which will keep him in the same office in the same airport for years.  But other than that, it’s hard to identify a unifying theme.  You have Enrique (Diego Luna), another endearing employee, who isn’t stuck as he goes from infatuated with Dolores (Zoe Saldana) to married to her in the span of a few months.  His life is on the rise.  Does it suggest anything in relation to Viktor’s story?  I don’t know.

I think this is a simple story about people (of varied ethnicities and cultures) growing together and finding hope in a guy who’s been forgotten by the system.  This could be symbolic for almost any group of people that feels persecuted.  Maybe it’s important, then, that Viktor’s mission is to go see a Jazz musician.  Jazz is a genre of music that was born out of oppression.  I don’t know about all the details of the origins of Jazz, and I don’t want to speak out of my ass, but to my knowledge it was never a type of music that reflected existing power structures and heteronormative perspectives.

So when Viktor sits down to watch Benny Golson at the end of the film, he’s celebrating his journey as much as the end result.  Sure he’d still enjoy the music if he wasn’t stuck at JFK for 9 months, but his enjoyment of the music means more to us as the audience because of what we’ve seen him go through.  In many films there are characters who act as an audience surrogate, and in this film the other airport employees are in a sense that surrogate for the audience.  In the final scene, however, we are the surrogates for the rest of the cast of characters who can’t see Viktor’s triumph like we can, they can only imagine it.


I don’t this this movie would be the same without the rest of those airport employees who root for Viktor like patriotic citizens in a fourth of July parade.  Viktor’s journey in itself isn’t that dramatic.  I was never scared of him failing because I didn’t see his return home as disastrous.  Similarly I didn’t view him being stuck in the terminal as such a bad thing either, particularly because he seemed so good at life in the terminal.  But his victory means more to the group of people behind him than it does to him.  Even if you do remove them, actually, his journey is more for his father than for himself.  Viktor is just the vessel through which everyone else can find some meaning in their own life.  In a way, those airport employees are the movie audience, finding hope and attaching meaning to a person they didn’t know before and will never see again.  (well, except for when Viktor comes back through JFK on his return trip home)

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