Stretching the Subtext: The Terminal
On the whole The Terminal
is a fairly hokey, sometimes unbearable attempt at cuteness that is clearly a Hollywood-ization of a true story. That story- due to some complicated paperwork problems an Iranian man who landed in De Gaulle airport could neither leave to go home nor fly to his final destination in England-is transposed by Steven Spielberg to New York’s JFK airport with Tom Hanks as Victor Navorski. With Hank’s nationality changed to a fictitious “Krakozian” instead of Iranian, as well as arbitrary plot additions like a forced romance
with flight attendant Catherine Zeta-Jones, The Terminal seems pretty easy to dismiss as a serious film.
But surface appearances are not everything, and there is a distinct, if not direct, link between this film and Spielberg’s near masterpiece Minority Report
that can be found in the subtle neo-fascism of a government controller future. Navorski is trapped in JFK not due to a paper snafu but from the fact that while in the air his home nation suddenly suffered a coup and is now engaged in civil war as a new government tries to assert its power. Krakozia therefore rescinds the use of its citizens’ passports and the U.S., having not yet recognized the country’s new government, fails to let its citizens into America. Thus Navorski is trapped in what would seem to be a vacuum within JFK, a vacuum between countries and settled lives, all kept under the watchful eye of the airport’s security chief Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci).
Aside from the obvious Twilight Zone
quality of Navorski’s situation (one actually noted by Dixon in the film), eerie references abound in The Terminal that push the idea that Navorski isn’t so much amusingly stuck in an airport as he is carefully manipulated in a controlled and manufactured environment. Unintended intertexual references are the first to point in this direction. Dixon’s security center and especially the way he hovers around the airport’s camera feed constantly looking for legal indiscretions bares more than passing resemblance to the headquarters of the mind/thought police of Minority Report
who determine the fate of so-called criminals that have done nothing more than contain the possibility or likelihood of future crime. An even more disturbing
(albeit very loose) connection is that Tucci’s eye-glassed deadpan bureaucratic controller easily calls up the memory of his role as the ultimate deadpan administrator of them all, Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy
The environment that Dixon restricts Navorski to is key to the film’s extra-narrative themes (its narrative themes being of the highly dismissible “be patient and wait it out” kind of simplicity). Kept out of hotels or first class relax areas like the Red Carpet Club, Navorski is “sequestered” to the International Lounge-a bizarre name for what amounts to an inside shopping mall that has no place to rest and only places to consume. Locked inside a glass cage with “views” of both New York (taxi cabs) and freedom in general (the constant coming and going of flights) Navorski is forced by Dixon to have access only to monolithic corporate storefronts-Starbucks, Borders, Burger King, etc. A security guard remarks to Navorski that the only thing to do in such a place is shop, and indeed that does seem the only possibility. In a bit of Kafka mixed with a Dick, Navorski is given food vouchers are turned into trash, finds employees talking in strange business-speak, people who don’t seem to notice him, and phonecard that he can’t use with a phone. The man is veritably forced to work for his money, “amusingly” finding creative but non-legitimate ways of scrounging a living like hording baggage carts to collect the financial reward. Once he is funneled into this system of control the mall of consumption is at his finger tips, and later the film goes so far as to push the well used flight stewardess-as-prostitute motif into new heights as Zeta-Jones appears as just another good to consume and dispose inside this area where politics are nonexistant and the only thing that's important is to keep consumers in and the world's loser out. The terminal becomes a little ant farm type experiment, with Dixon manipulating Navorski into a consumer mindset where he must work to live and must live for the hope that someday he will leave. Dixon actually has other priorities, seeing this frumpish Eastern European immigrant as useless and desires to get him off his hands as soon as possible, but the is a narrative requirement and does little to destroy the impact of this jail consisting of American brand name stores. (Navorksi’s forgoing sleep to teach himself English just so he can function in the shopping mall not only develops the evolution of the man into the mall's
perfect consumer, but also weakly points The Terminal
towards some kind of metaphor on immigration to America in general.)
Keep in mind as well that in this information age-where Dixon keeps careful watch on Navorski by using the eye in the sky-and that Navorski only knows about his country’s “demise” through reports via a 24-hour TV news network that talk in a language he barely comprehends. Even Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum seeps into Spielberg’s bizarre mixture of cute hokum and quasi-paranoid picture of neo-America, where disoriented visitors are manipulated by the filtering/control of information through TV broadcasts by phantom news networks. Though probably unintended these details add up, like how the undistinguished masses of workers at the airport mall unite behind Navarski in his subverting of Dixon’s Homeland Security policies.
Oblique references to these themes as Cold War rhetoric-employees thinking Navarksi is part of a C.I.A. operation, Navarski’s generic Eastern European country and language, etc.-make it fairly clear that whatever the film has to say it is saying it without really having a clear point to make. The themes mostly hover between a textual and subtextual level but there is no doubt that they are orchestrated by Spielberg and not by Andrew Niccol and Sacha Gervasi’s conventional and gag-based script by. The fact that most of The Terminal’s subtext feels unintended and neither structured thematically, nor highly linked to the plot, nor even to character development (Hanks-always good natured-takes the whole thing in stride, which is no surprise given his unnaturally flawlessly good-hearted character) leaves one only with a handful of interesting ideas menacingly hovering in the background of an occasionally creative, sometimes funny, but usually mundane Hollywood film.