A lot of us know what it is like to wait in an airport and have to stay overnight at one because your flight runs into an unexpected delay whether it’s due to a plane’s mechanical issue, or there are weather complications, or if a global pandemic cancels your flight unexpectedly. Whatever the cause of your delay, I am sure you never have had to live in an airport for months on end let alone for more than a day. The questions you should ask yourself though if you could put yourself in this following hypothetical scenario: What if you couldn’t leave the airport upon arrival in a new country? What if the country you just left, your home country, underwent significant political changes or even revolution overnight leaving you stranded? The very underrated yet enjoyable ‘The Terminal’ movie asks these unique questions.
A mix of fiction and non-fiction, a concoction of drama, comedy, and a little bit of tragedy all together, ‘The Terminal’ is a 2004 American film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones. The premise may seem out there of someone being stuck in an airport for months or years but ‘The Terminal’ is partly based on the true story of a real-life refugee. Mr. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee lived in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport and was considered ‘stateless’ for many years and was denied entry into France while also not being expelled from the airport. In total, he lived in the de Gaulle airport for over 18 years and only left from there in 2008 when he was moved for medical treatment and then a Paris shelter.
Nasseri, like ‘The Terminal’s main character have that premise in common of not being able to enter their new chosen destination but also having the right to live in the airport without being expelled. Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) is on his way to New York City from the fictional Eastern European country known as ‘Krakozhia’ looking to fulfill a personal mission, which is unknown to the viewer right away. We see images of him arriving at JFK along with thousands of others looking to visit America from far-flung countries. However, a routine Visa check and Passport stamp ends up as a nightmare for poor Viktor.
While Viktor was flying into John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, his country underwent a political revolution and civil conflict leaving him without international recognition of his Passport since Krakozhia no longer has a recognized government. Since his passport is no longer valid, he cannot enter the United States because the U.S. does not recognize the country anymore due to the ongoing civil strife. Viktor is now ‘stateless’ as he cannot return home and he cannot leave the airport rendering him stranded there. Viktor is forced to remain in the international transit lounge and is not given much help by Frank Dixon (played by Stanley Tucci) who would much rather Viktor leave the airport to get arrested so he becomes someone else’s problem. Mr. Dixon, the Acting Field commissioner for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, gives Viktor only a handful of food vouchers and a calling card but not much else to get by on.
Viktor has a destination in mind for his New York City trip but has limited English skills when he arrives and is only able to tell the CBP officer the name of a local hotel but does not go into much detail about why he is going there and what the purpose of his stay might be. Without his passport and his return ticket, Viktor’s life shrinks down to the international transit lounge at JFK airport where he spends his days collecting luggage carts to order Burger King, accidentally breaks a young girl’s luggage, and slips, falls when he runs to see news about Krakozhia because the Indian American janitor enjoys seeing people slip for his only entertainment.
Eventually, Viktor becomes accustomed to living in an airport and at first, while both daunting and scary to the stateless refugee, he adapts to his new living conditions with some ingenuity and perseverance. He constructs his own bed by dismantling the arm rests of the seats at an abandoned terminal, he learns English through travel guides and by watching the scroll of news information come across the screen to keep up to date with what is going on with his beloved Krakozhia and can both shower and shave somehow when using the airport bathroom.
Human beings have an innate need to adapt to our surroundings even when they are unfamiliar, foreign, or stressful for us. Perhaps that is what endears Viktor so much to the audience in this film is that he does not give up hope, makes the best of the awful situation he is in, and even starts to befriend other airport workers who are often ignored, underpaid, or even mistreated at times by both customers and their employers. The power of perseverance in the face of obstacles makes ‘The Terminal’ a heartwarming and memorable film. Instead of getting down on life and giving up on his situation, he turns the tables on Frank and the border agents by not falling into their traps that they set for him. He makes his own happiness. One of the best moments of this film is when a random gentleman is shaving alongside Vikor, stops for a second, and says to Viktor, “Do you ever get the feeling that you’re just living in an airport?”
Being stuck in an airport terminal means a lot of time on your hands too. Viktor spends his almost limitless time in waiting by honing his skills as a carpenter and a painter even getting himself a job that allows him to earn money ‘under the table’ as a contractor mostly so he can eat. He befriends the CBP officers he sees each day even though they continue to deny his tourist visa due to his invalid passport. One CBP officer whom he gets to know very well is Dolores who Enrique (Diego Luna) has a massive crush on and would like Viktor to ask her questions to start an eventual conversation with her.
In return, Enrique gives him some extra airplane meals that he delivers on to the planes. Gupta, the janitor who at first makes fun of Viktor for slipping and not seeing the ‘wet floor’ sign eventually gains respect for Viktor because he makes him feel less lonely. Viktor befriends other transit lounge employees, plays card games with them over ‘lost’ items never picked up by passengers, and is able to win the admiration and possible affection of Amelia, a wayward flight attendant who ends up caught in a ‘love triangle’ between Viktor and another man.
While Amelia is always on the go and can’t seem to stand still in her relationships or in her job, Viktor is the exact opposite in that he can’t go and must always stay. Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones have real chemistry in this movie and represent how different their characters are from each other but can bond over their shared humor, interests, and lust for life even if they are opposites in an ironic sense with where they are in their lives, one stuck in limbo and the other always on the go.
The main mystery that I will not spoil for you is why Viktor flew halfway around the world to be in New York and what exactly is in the Planters peanut can, which he won’t let go of even after being in the airport for nine months. More important than his passport or return ticket, the closed Planters can contain the reason for Viktor’s trip and how he ended up this limbo state even though he has a place to go to before he returns to Krakozhia.
By the end of the film, you and the rest of the audience are rooting for a happy ending for Viktor and even for perhaps with Amelia as well. You also see heartwarming stories of Viktor helping a fellow Krakozhian in need of translation help, aiding Gupta with staying in his job and the U.S., as well as getting Enrique and Dolores to successfully date and marry each other.
‘The Terminal’ is perhaps Spielberg’s most heartwarming, underrated, and emotionally uplifting movie in his storied career as one of the world’s greatest directors. With great acting and an impressive accent by Hanks, lovely humor and touching romantic scenes with Zeta-Jones and the excellent Stanley Tucci who plays a man who can be cruel but also compassionate in the same scene but ends up as the film’s antagonist. This film has a little bit of everything and will make you laugh, cry, and even cheer at the ending.
‘The Terminal’ is a reminder that we are all waiting for something or someone in the winding road that is life itself. Sometimes, we get sidetracked, turned around, or even stuck in an airport for days or months even, but we always can find a way to make the best of our new surroundings, even find happiness or love in the place where we least expect it. Viktor Navorski as I would say is a real mensch who finds himself in a terrible situation, one not of his own making, but is able to create an odd life out of being given nothing and is able to help others and become a favorite of the JFK international transit lounge, which is a place that people want to get out of as soon as possible. He can’t leave but he ends up enjoying the long stay thanks to his compassion, kindness, and genuine warmth as a good person.