In the wake of 9/11, a lot of people started confusing patriotism with being scared of anyone not from this country. We were encouraged to fear the other, conveniently ignoring the fact that the United States was founded and grown by wave after wave of others. But never mind that, there were dark-skinned minorities out there to be afraid of! Time to hunker down with all the real Americans. So while The Terminal doesn’t deal directly with the events of 9/11, it certainly has the heightened nationalism that came after as its backdrop. And where better to set the story than in the one place where people of all nationalities are treated equally, with equal helpings of frustration and annoyance — an airport.
That airport terminal is a real microcosm of the country that lies beyond its doors. It’s sprawling, loud, over-commercialized, filled with people thinking only of themselves, and sometimes downright hostile towards anyone who doesn’t speak English. And yet the story is a convergence of outsiders. You have Viktor, visiting from his troubled eastern European nation. His reason for being here is to complete his late father’s autographed copy of the “Great Day in Harlem” photo, fifty-seven mostly African-American jazz musicians who would have been virtual outsiders in their own country at the time the photo was taken. The airport workers who befriend him are all minorities, some native, some having immigrated. Viktor even gets an under-the-table job making a good wage as a construction worker, the foreigner literally coming over and taking away our jobs. And Catherine Zeta-Jones’ flight attendant with whom Viktor become smitten is a bit of an outsider herself, traveling all over the country but really having no set place in it.
So we have an outsider being helped by outsiders in a quest to recognize another group of outsiders. And against Viktor is your standard American bureaucracy, all suits and ties and offices and forms and rules that can’t be bent even in circumstances where it doesn’t make much sense to apply them. What Spielberg shows us here is how close-minded, insular suspicion of the other blinds us to just what the other has to offer. And it offers a glimpse of why a lot of other countries feel about us the way they do: after Viktor’s ordeal, having finally been allowed to leave the airport and complete his mission to honor his father’s memory, the first thing he says is, “I am going home.” You can keep the American dream; he’s done with the place.
But what I really appreciate about The Terminal is how you can ignore all that subtext and just enjoy the film as the adventures of a simple man with a simple goal that becomes unfathomably complicated. Tom Hanks is such a fantastic everyman, our generation’s Jimmy Stewart in that respect. He may not challenge himself very often, but he know the strength of his appeal; most of the time you see him onscreen, you know right away this is a character to root for. Which makes the fact that he doesn’t get the girl in the end all the more refreshing. He’s Tom Hanks! He’s supposed to have the happy ending! But no, she’s not going to change, he’s not going to stay, and they’re both back on the separate planes again.
So there’s a good old-fashioned “little man against the system” tale here for those who just want to sit back and enjoy a likeable actor in a likeable role, and a sly commentary on our new brand of supposed patriotism for those who want to look a little deeper. Not bad for what’s considered one of Spielberg’s more minor efforts.