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The man without a country 

Whatever else he has accomplished in a large, varied, and successful body of work, Steven Spielberg's reputation as a director will probably forever be associated with a number of grand blockbusters. His science fiction flicks include such titles as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, A.I., Jurassic Park, and most recently, Minority Report. The action films include Duel, Jaws, the Indiana Jones trilogy, and the lavishly praised war movie, Saving Private Ryan.

            Along with George Lucas, he has sometimes exerted a negative influence on contemporary cinema with his penchant for spectacular special effects, creating an expectation and even a demand for ever greater and more complicated cinematic pyrotechnics, which far too many moviegoers mistake for filmmaking.

            In several other films, even including many of his blockbusters, however, the director also displays ambitions to examine some perhaps more intellectually and emotionally substantial, even more socially relevant issues, e.g., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Amistad, and most important of all, Schindler's List.

            His latest movie, The Terminal, neither an action flick nor a visual extravaganza, represents something of a departure from his considerable body of work, concentrating on a mildly comic, essentially ordinary and relatively commonplace story within a single set, without any of the usual Spielberg touches of the sensational and the melodramatic. The film displays further dimensions of his art, placing him among the ranks of the traditional big studio Hollywood directors, the people who created the great traditions of American cinema.

            Loosely based on some actual events, The Terminal tells the otherwise incredible story of a man trapped for nine months in the no-man's-land of the international terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. Tom Hanks, who has worked with the director before, plays Viktor Navorski, a citizen of Krakozhia, a country somewhere East of the more famous Graustark and Ruritania, traveling to New York on a mysterious personal mission, revealed only at the end of the film.

            Just as he enters the usual Customs and Immigration checkpoint, a newsflash announces a right-wing coup d'etat in Krakozhia, which topples the existing government and incidentally invalidates Viktor's passport, making him a citizen of no nation, a man without a country.

            Because of the stringent laws invoked by the Department of Homeland Security and the legalistic enforcement of the officious bureaucrat who oversees the operation (Stanley Tucci), Viktor can neither return to his native country nor enter the United States. He must remain in the terminal of the title, gradually acquiring some English, finding clever ways to earn enough to eat, and camping out in a construction.

            His nine-month stay in the enclosed space of the terminal becomes a kind of survival story, a series of small adventures and significant encounters that turn him into the one resident of a place dedicated to arrivals and departures, a permanent fixture where everyone else is in transit.

            As Viktor endlessly roams the terminal, the only version of America he knows, the set becomes one huge venue for product placement --- he reads in the Borders bookstore, eats at Burger King and Sbarro, buys clothing at Boss, shops at the Discovery Store, looks for shoes at Payless, and so forth, happily sampling American consumer culture.

            He also makes friends with the people he sees every day --- the workers in all those stores, a janitor, a baggage handler, the guy who delivers meals to the airplanes --- and becomes a sort of hero to them all when he assists another foreigner suffering from Tucci's bullying. He even forms a temporary romantic attachment to a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta Jones), who, not realizing Viktor's situation, figuratively states his literal condition, the common traveler's complaint about living in airports.

            Although rather long and necessarily static, the picture exhibits the absolute authenticity of a typical Spielberg effort --- the real special effects consist of the remarkably detailed and convincing reconstruction of the terminal itself. It also succeeds through the performance of Hanks, who though limited by a character almost as constricted as the setting, displays an occasionally Chaplinesque resilience and athleticism, and even some of the Chaplinesque pathos.

            Always leaning forward slightly, stumbling awkwardly toward no real destination, groping for words, mangling his English, attempting to comprehend the strange world he inhabits, he projects an unusual mixture of patience and good nature in the midst of his sadness and desperation.

            The Terminal's sweet and sentimental ending appropriately concludes a story that constantly threatens to revert to the old traditions of classic Hollywood cinema. Its situation and action, its sympathy for the working people who inhabit the setting, its conflict between humanity and legalism, and even its innocent love story all recall the golden past of American film, and suggest that the director consciously (and intelligently) chose to imitate the works of Frank Capra.

            If Hanks seems Chaplinesque, Spielberg seems Capraesque, which also implies that the director understands that movies are not simply a collection of exaggerated actions and expensive special effects.

The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Michael Nouri, Zoe Saldana, Kumar Pallana; story by Andrew Niccol and Sacha Gervasi; screenplay by Jeff Nathanson and Sacha Gervasi; directed by Steven Spielberg. Cinemark Tinseltown; The Little; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Greece Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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