The Terminal. DreamWorks Pictures presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson. Running time: 121 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief language and drug references). Starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Kumar Pallanatucci, Barry Shabaka Henley, Zoe Saldana.

Terminal, The

In Steven Spielberg's new film, The Terminal, Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man from the fictitious country of Krakozhia who gets stuck in JFK Airport after a military coup in his country voids his VISA. Mildly based on the true story of an Iranian man caught in a Paris airport, The Terminal plays fast and loose with the facts. The film is an intelligent comedy, one revels in small details and subtle emotions. That is, until the over-the-top conclusion that requires us to suspend our disbelief more than is comfortable.

What is most special about The Terminal is the way in which the story is told. The film is slow-paced and deliberate, one that is more interested in exploring the concept than advancing the plot. The first third of the film is devoted entirely to how Viktor spends his time at the airport. It isn't until the final two acts that the real plot kicks in. The head of the airport (Stanley Tucci) is desperate to get Viktor out of the airport, and tries all kinds of underhanded ways to remove the new guy. In his attempt to get used to his surroundings, Viktor meets a pretty stewardess, Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), with whom he tries to form a relationship, and a trio of airport employees (Diego Luna, Kumar Pallanatucci and Chi McBride), who help him adapt.

The Terminal is successful as a comedy, less so as a drama. Spielberg and Hanks know exactly how to play comedy, as some scenes are hilariously funny. When The Terminal keeps its tone light, it is entirely successful. But when Spielberg tries to insert his trademark sentimentality into the film's conlcusion, the results are offputting. The ultimate resolution to the Viktor/Amelia subplot is not much of a resolution at all; it's just...over. And when Viktor ultimately attempts to leave the airport, the result is the sentimental equivalent of the slow clap.

But Spielberg is such a talented filmmaker that this ultimately doesn't hurt the overall experience too much. By using one giant model of JFK airport, he creates an environment nearly as fantastical as his visions in A.I. and Minority Report, and the fantastic is where Spielberg is most at home (Schindler's List being the notable exception). The man knows exactly what he is doing, and it shows. Ultimately, The Terminal is a satisfying experience.

In one of his best recent performances, Tom Hanks pulls off the difficult feat of using a strange accent without exploiting it for comedic effect. His eyes betray a whole range of emotions, from confusion and fear to love and happiness. Stanley Tucci is believable, although is character is a disappointingly one-note villain. Catherine Zeta-Jones fares less well; her performance is flighty and unconvincing, a big step back from her sharp, Oscar-winning work in Chicago.

It is to Spielberg's credit that he could make a film that runs on too long, contains several unresolved subplots, has an ineffective and manipulative climax, and yet is still entertaining and uplifting. Compared with the much of Spielberg's ouvre, it is a minor effort, but still a good bet for a summer expedition to the movies.

© 2004 Matt Noller