It is often assumed that Hollywood films try to avoid contemporary political reality altogether – and that they offer, instead, a fairy-tale escapism for audiences. But this is not exactly correct.
The risky gamble of many mainstream American movies is to come right up close to a current social hot issue, thus generating a frisson of topicality – but then, instantly and cagily, to cool-off that topic and somehow make it simply harmless, amusing, reassuring.
It is hard for even the craftiest film to seamlessly execute such a two-step. And it is precisely in the too-evident fast footwork, the fumbles and the flourishes, that many movies reveal their most fascinating contradictions. This is especially true of the films of Steven Spielberg.
The Terminal is a strange, puzzling project. It is about some of the central political themes of the modern world: migration, exile, detainment, refugee status. In this case, Spielberg and writers Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson (from a story by Gervasi plus Gattaca  and The Truman Show  creator Andrew Niccol) coyly invent a fictitious, Eastern European country named Krakozhia (a name we hear fruitily pronounced several hundred times) and plunge it into an unspecified war.
This leaves Viktor (Tom Hanks) as a man without a valid visa, stuck in a large American airport, unwilling to go home and unable to enter the place he is visiting.
So Viktor bums around the airport. He eats, shops, showers, wanders. Eventually, he makes a large number of good friends among the airport staff. In no time at all, it seems, he also learns passable English (from comparing travel brochures in different languages), gets a paying job in a construction crew, and even falls in love with an airline hostess, Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) – something of a femme fatale, it seems (her "messed-up hormones" are explained as a side-effect of being in the air and between time zones!).
Being a detainee has never looked like so much fun.
Spielberg has spoken of the film as an optimistic fable about how an outsider discovers the real melting-pot America, in an unlikely setting. And, as can be expected, the film cleverly manages to sweep up the viewer in this fantasy – Spielberg is nothing if not an expert showman.
But it is easy to stage a dream of cultural and racial togetherness when the script never has to truly imagine Viktor's integration into the world of daily America – only its rosy simulacrum.
When Spielberg is compared to other, previous filmmakers who have inspired him, it is usually Frank Capra or Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind, 1939) who are mentioned. But The Terminal reveals a new, unexpected reference. With only a few twists, The Terminal could have easily been a dark Brian De Palma thriller.
The endless, enclosed world of the airport is like the casino in Snake Eyes (1998), or the train stations in The Untouchables (1987) and Carlito's Way (1993). The nerdy hero's hazardous yet miraculous journey of exploration through this labyrinth recalls many De Palma plots.
Even visually, there are many De Palma touches: for instance, the camera which cranes away, leaving the hero standing alone, lost in a crowd. But it is in the basic construction of the piece that the Spielberg-De Palma kinship is most evident. De Palma meticulously plans his films using what he calls a schematic: a pattern of symmetries, echoes and reversals between all the narrative and formal elements.
Spielberg plots things out in a similar way, and The Terminal is his most relentlessly schematic movie. The problem is that Spielberg's patterns tend to be mere meaningless elaboration.
For example: faced with a story about a man who waits, you can imagine the director instructing his writers: "Make sure everybody in this movie does a bit of waiting!" So even the most minor character has a waiting scene, and – thanks to a storytelling device dear to Spielberg – there is a central nemesis and negative mirror to the hero, airport official Frank (Stanley Tucci), who is a bureaucrat turned bad by too much waiting for a promotion. (Spielberg would be nowhere without his mimetic-twin central antagonists: recall DiCaprio and Hanks in Catch Me If You Can .)
A revealing double bill: The Terminal and Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Both films tackle the same issues, and at key points are (no doubt coincidentally) eerily similar – including their "I'm going home" closing lines. But I would gladly trade the entire shenanigans of The Terminal for the final, heartbreaking airport scene in Dirty Pretty Things.
© Adrian Martin September 2004