"Are you coming or going?"
"I don't know. Both."
-Amelia Warren and Viktor Navorski.
By the turn of the millenium, Steven Spielberg's clout had risen to the point where, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, he had become the true star of his films, regardless of who was acting in them. Filmmaker Jamie Stuart once wrote: "Like Stanley Kubrick, (Spielberg's) imprint is felt in multiple genres and time periods." Indeed, like Kubrick, Spielberg has left memorable marks in diverse film genres: horror, science fiction, war, period pieces, and comedy.
Spielberg's first film which could be classified as the latter was the great-looking, well-cast, but laugh-free 1941 (1979). His next attempt proved more successful with Catch Me If You Can (2002), a wonderful (and, at times, sexy) film in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a con artist being pursued by an FBI agent, played by Tom Hanks, who previously worked with Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998). What made Catch Me a classic was that it had laughs but also an emotional core at its center. Although DiCaprio's character forges checks to live the good life, he is instantly likable and sympathetic. The relationship which forms between his character and Hanks's gives the film a unique twist.
Spielberg's next film was The Terminal, which reunited him with Hanks. Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a native of the fictitious country Krahkozia, who is traveling to the US. Upon landing at the JFK airport, he learns of the coup which occurred in his native land while he was in the air and, while his family is fine, his passport has now been rendered obsolete. Hence, he is unable to leave the airport to go to any country (including the US) until the political red tape is cleared up. Although scared at first, Viktor eventually takes it upon himself to treat the airport like his own home, including making money by doing odd jobs such as maintenance. This leads to friendships with the airport staff, one of which, the caterer Enrique (Diego Luna), enlists Viktor's aid in helping him win the heart of security officer Dolores (Zoe Saldana).
Viktor, likewise, develops romantic feelings for beautiful but emotionally troubled airline stewardess Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has an unfortunate penchant for being involved with married men. Viktor making the airport his own slowly but surely gets on the nerves of its director Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who makes several attempts to remove him. One such attempt is by depriving him of making money for food, but Enrique gives him a hand there. A later attempt involves attempts to deport Viktor (once the crisis in Krahkozia has been resolved) out of spite, but another employee Rajan (Kumar Pallana, who gets most of the funny lines in this film) stops those plans by literally running in front of the plane meant for Viktor.
If the film has a flaw it's the slow pace it seems to adapt once Viktor is told that he can leave the airport. While he may want to see where he stands with Amelia by that point, I would think he'd at least want to make an international phone call or two to his native land to talk to his family. One thing I've always liked about this movie is the relationship between Viktor and Amelia, which is sweet but doesn't end with them getting married, as other, more predicable comedies would do. Viktor is unhappy that she is continuing her relationship with a married official but the smile they exchange in their final scene is nice. I've always hated it when people accuse Spielberg of being too sentimental and this sub-plot proves that he can do something different on a dramatic level. Hanks and Zeta-Jones are as charming as ever.
To me, Hanks and Spielberg are as great an actor/director combination as Kubrick and Peter Sellers or Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. It is also amusing how Dolores is revealed to spend her spare time at Star Trek conventions. I've always wondered if Saldana's role in this film was a factor in casting her as Uhura in Star Trek (2009). Hands down, though, the best part of this film is the terminal of the title. The non-CGI set was the work of set designer Alex McDowell, who did the believable science fiction sets for Spielberg's Minority Report (2002), and it's as wonderfully detailed and eye-popping as, say, Blofeld's volcano in You Only Live Twice (1967) and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). Why none of those films won, or were even nominated, for the Oscar for art direction, I'll never know.