No one's idea of a final destination, airports are like earthly limbo: By definition and design, they're environments for people headed somewhere else. They're comfortable enough for an hour or two, but the charms of fast food, newsstand reading material, and padded rows of bucket seats exhaust themselves quickly, as anyone who's been forced to camp in an airport overnight will readily attest. So the idea of a character turning an airport into a home would almost be comedy enough to sustain a movie. And, until it becomes clear how much of the world finds its way beneath one airport's glass roof, it seems like Steven Spielberg's The Terminal plans to do only that.
Set almost entirely in the international wing of JFK, gateway to the U.S. for thousands each day, the film takes place during the accidental residency of a tourist (Tom Hanks) who, while vacationing from a Russian satellite nation, stumbles into a seemingly inescapable mass of red tape when his homeland's government falls in a military coup. Left with an invalid passport, he has little recourse but to stay put, however awkwardly he fits into his inhospitable new surroundings. The flipside of Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Catch Me If You Can, he's out of place in the one place he can never leave.
Scripted by Andrew Niccol, Sacha Gervasi, and Jeff Nathanson, The Terminal draws its inspiration from the true story of Iranian dissident Merhan Nasseri, who has been living in Paris' Charles De Gaulle airport since 1988 thanks, at least at first, to a series of political snafus. The film has much softer politics in mind, as it uses JFK as a stage to play out the American immigrant experience in miniature. At first confused, threatened, and hungry—think E.T. in out-of-fashion Eastern European clothing—Hanks becomes resourceful in order to survive, making friends with those who can help him and plugging into the airport economy by returning baggage carts for a quarter a pop. Spielberg gives the bulk of the movie over to this upward climb, and even fits love into the picture through Hanks' makeshift courtship of Catherine Zeta-Jones, a stewardess still in thrall to her latest affair with a married man. Told "America is closed" when he first tries to make his way out of the airport, and continually encouraged to move on and become someone else's problem by status-quo-minded customs chief Stanley Tucci, Hanks instead finds a little America inside, complete with the opportunity to pursue happiness, though there's no guarantee that he'll find it.
While it doesn't seem like there's much of a movie in the spectacle of a heavily accented Hanks working his way up through airport society while hanging out with airport employees Chi McBride, Diego Luna, and Wes Anderson stock player Kumar Pallana, Spielberg smartly gives himself over to such small pleasures. In the latest of a long string of memorable performances, Hanks balances wide-eyed confusion with innate shrewdness, finding a character who's both unfailingly sweet and nobody's fool. His story only starts to feel small when Spielberg has to wind things up and move past the little world Hanks has created. It's such a charming place by the end that it's hard to see the advantage in leaving it.