The Terminal

In The Terminal, directed by Stephen Spielberg, Frank Dixon (played by Stanley Tucci) believes that he has only three concerns as head of security at JFK Airport on behalf of the Homeland Security Department–people, documents, and their stories. One day Viktor Navorsky (played by Tom Hanks), citizen of Krakozhia (a made-up name), disembarks at JFK, planning to visit the sights of New York City after checking into the Ramada Inn on Lexington Avenue. While en route, his country has a coup, such that Dixon informs him that his passport is no longer valid because the United States is withholding diplomatic recognition from the new regime. Moreover, he cannot return to Krakozhia because all inbound flights have been canceled. Communicating with Navorsky, whose English comprehension is minimal (he speaks Bulgarian), Dixon tells him that he is to return to the transit lounge, the section of the airport for standby passengers where he disembarked, along with meal vouchers, a three-minute international calling card, and a pager, until he can be cleared either for entry into the United States or for a return to Krakozhia.  Navorsky is stateless, in other words. But, twenty-four hours later, when he has exhausted his vouchers (some of which blow away while he engages in an act of kindness), the diplomatic situation remains in turmoil. Thus, Navorsky must live at the airport terminal indefinitely until his status is clarified, a Hitchcockian plot that has filmviewers on the edge of their chairs as he learns how to survive for an interminable time and mystifies almost everyone about the real purpose for his trip to New York and the contents of his treasured can of Planter’s peanuts. As an honest, humble person, Navorsky does so by finding unusual ways to cope with his dilemma, while New Yorkers at first demonstrate opposite qualities and later begin to appreciate his decency. That is, all but Dixon, who is eager for a promotion and thus follows the rules. Soon, Dixon invents a way to get rid of him: He tells Navorsky that the exit door will be left unguarded for five minutes; Dixon hopes that he will leave and then become an illegal alien out of the jurisdiction of the airport–someone else’s problem. Honest Navorsky demurs, however. On another day, Dixon offers to accept from him an application for political asylum; but when he asks him if he has any fear regarding a return to his country, which is experiencing armed combat, Navorsky says that he has no such fear, frustrating Dixon’s second ploy. In response, Dixon next shows a mean streak. He hopes that Navorsky, who has been having meals of free crackers with mustard and ketchup from fastfood establishments at the airport, will grow hungry and make a break for the outside, but that plot is foiled when Navorsky discovers that returns of rental carts can earn twenty-five cents each. So Dixon appoints a deputy to quickly round up idle rental carts before Navorsky, who then is expected to be starved into fleeing the airport illegally. Anyone living at the airport for several days, however, is likely to make friends, especially a wholesome, helpful, and resourceful person. Enrique Cruz (played by Diego Luna) spots him daily as he approaches a desk where a Miss Torres, a beautiful immigration official (played by Zoe Saldana), accepts applications for admission to the United States; since Enrique has amorous desires to marry her, he offers meals to Navorsky behind the baggage claim room in exchange for serving as a go-between in a relationship that ultimately is consummated. One night, discovering a construction project, he decides to plaster and to paint a wall; in the morning, he is hired at $19 dollars an hour, so he has money to buy designer clothes and to become a high-paying customer for meals. He also runs into Amelia Warren (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), who at the age of thirty-nine is stuck in a dead-end job as airline flightperson and whose one joy in life is to have sex with a fickle married man when she is laid over twice weekly in New York. Amelia and Viktor meet as she is turned down for a date with the man, and the two continue to run into each other until she realizes that he is a very special person. Other employees at the airport marvel at his ability to cope and to brighten their day. Obviously, the film must end happily, and the point of the plot is to understand how Navorsky survives while making all sorts of friends. Nevertheless, The Terminal also shows the seamy side of bureaucracy. The rules are rigidly enforced by Dixon, a martinet who turns out to be no better than the prison warden in The Last Castle (2002). Dixon never calls for an interpreter. Even though Krakozhia is gobbled up by another country, Dixon does not call for instructions from Washington about Navorsky’s status and fails to alert the country’s New York diplomatic mission. Dixon even arranges to deport some of the airport workers who have befriended Navorsky as an act of spite when he is fired from his job toward the end of the film. The Terminal might serve as a paradigm for those who are caught up in the net of the new Department of Homeland Security, arrested and detained indefinitely, but that story will have to be told in another film. Instead, the movie is based in part on the true story of an Iranian who was unable or unwilling to leave Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport for twelve years. MH

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