Playing on Fear

Spielberg and Hanks spawn a daring new genre: The post-9/11 comedy

Getting stranded at snowbound O'Hare for the night is one thing. You call home, maybe knock down a couple of martinis, then grab a blanket. A century ago, being quarantined at Ellis Island for eight months because you were, say, a part-time anarchist from Campobasso with a big mustache and a little case of scarlet fever, was a far more serious business. Your very life was in the hands of nativist pencil-pushers.

The new Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film The Terminal deftly updates that turn of fate in a wry comedy perfectly suited to our moment -- the moment of the Ashcroft Justice Department and the national obsession with homeland security. Thanks to Spielberg's vivid storytelling and Hanks' matchless gift for bringing the common man to life, this is a relentlessly charming movie. Deep down, though, it's political and gently cautionary. A fable that has something to say about immigrant resourcefulness in the face of bureaucratic folly. About remaining human in a climate of fear and suspicion. About compassion and common sense. In other words, what we have here is the first post-9/11 comedy -- a daring proposition even for America's most widely respected filmmaker.

Hanks' appealing hero is one Viktor Navorski, a sweetly bewildered tourist from the fictitious Eastern European nation of Krakozhia who arrives at New York's Kennedy Airport wearing a lumpy brown suit and carrying a battered brown suitcase. Viktor's English is heavily accented and comically minimal, but his heart is clearly open to experience. Combine the stoic resolve of Charlie Chaplin's little tramp with the wonderment of Robin Williams' beleaguered defector in Moscow on the Hudson and you've got Viktor -- an innocent abroad whose life skills are about to be sorely tested. To wit: U.S. authorities won't let him leave the airport. While he was in the air, it turns out, the Krakozhian government was overthrown. Now his passport is invalid, and he's suddenly a man without a country. As this social fantasy would have it, Viktor Navorski is about to spend the next nine months right there inside JFK's international-transit lounge, struggling to survive, making an odd assortment of friends, and battling the tyranny of official documents and the mulishness of his tormentor, an uptight airport security chief named Dixon (the wonderful Stanley Tucci). Screenwriters Sacha Gervasi (The Big Tease) and Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me if You Can) have obviously absorbed the paranoid nightmares of Franz Kafka, and they've read the Patriot Act. Their skill lies in being able to play such grave matters for laughs. For the most part, anyway.

Meanwhile, those who admire Tom Hanks will find plenty of career hallmarks here. Like the social chameleon Forrest Gump, Viktor is wildly misunderstood. Like the twelve-year-old trapped in a grownup's body in Big, he's a displaced person. Like the lawyer dying of AIDS in Philadelphia, he's had his world turned inside-out by cruel fate. Never mind the brilliantly conceived accent (Bulgarian maybe? Albanian?) or Viktor's klutzy lurches from the airport men's room, where he takes sponge baths, to the food court, where we see the poor guy squirting mustard onto Saltines. Under any flag, or none, this Hanks character, too, is an outsider banged around by forces he can't control.

As we know by now, though, Spielberg is a congenitally generous filmmaker who enjoys redeeming his heroes whenever he can. The captain doesn't survive, but Private Ryan honors him six decades hence. The white shark eats crusty old Quint, but he doesn't get the police chief. In The Terminal, the stolid, imaginative Viktor learns English bit by hilarious bit. He makes friends with a paranoid Indian janitor (Kumar Pallana) and a guy from the airline kitchen (Diego Luna), who rewards him with dinners from first class. He makes matches and settles internal disputes. He even manages to land a good-paying job, buy a Hugo Boss suit on sale, and enjoy a touch of romance with a love-troubled flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones). This last element may be an unconvincing conceit, but it very nearly completes the movie's fantasy package, in which a brave, patient striver from another place overcomes fear and earns his share of the American Dream. Without ever leaving the airport. All that's left is to shred some red tape and keep a long-held promise to his father back home.

Like the comic immigrant heroes who preceded him -- everybody from the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges to the irrepressible Italian jailbird Roberto Benigni played in Down by Law -- Viktor doesn't just adapt to his baffling new environment. He prevails through his hard work, unshakable optimism and profound curiosity about all things new that comes, by necessity, to a stranger in a strange land. This is, of course, the story of all our forefathers. It's a story, Steven Spielberg now reminds us, that none of us should forget even as we eyeball our borders with ever-increasing suspicion.