It's A Wonderful Flight

One of 2002's best movies was Catch Me If You Can, a scrumptious creamsicle of a movie. From the delicious opening credits to the heart-warming surprise ending, it burst with the seductive, manipulative charm we've come to expect from director Steven Spielberg, not to mention star Leonardo diCaprio.

But Catch Me If You Can is based on the true story of a teenage con artist who flummoxed then joined the FBI -- in other words, it's ABOUT seduction, manipulation, and charm. The thicker diCaprio shines it on, the wiser we feel for not succumbing to his scam...while, of course, succumbing totally.

The Terminal draws on some of the same talent. The eye-candy direction is by Spielberg, the ear-candy score by John Williams, and everyone's favorite ur-American, Tom Hanks, plays Viktor Navorski, a visitor to New York who because of a coup in his fictional Eastern European country becomes a transient without legal status, compelled by the bumbling Department of Homeland Security to live in the International Terminal at JFK for several months.

The Terminal isn't terrible. It's funny at times, and visually delicious. But it wants to be more than empty calories. It wants to be a Frank Capra classic about the little guy winning against all odds. That's why it borrows such Capraesque touches as the fancy dinner improvised for Viktor and a pretty flight attendant by the ramp rats, janitors, and other working folk at the airport -- lifted from It's a Wonderful Life.

But Spielberg does not succeed in borrowing what Graham Greene saw as Capra's main theme: "goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world."

Capra's genius was to know exactly how much selfishness and brutality the market will bear. Spielberg must think it will bear very little, because while The Terminal is supposed to be about immigration and uprootedness in an age of terrorism, the worst that befalls Viktor is his stomach rumbles for a while before he can figure out how to collect quarters from a luggage cart machine in order to buy a Whopper.

Would Capra have told a better story? For example, would he have dramatized a case like that of Purna Raj Bajracharya, a 47-year-old visitor from Nepal who in October 2001 was arrested by the FBI and placed in a secret detention facility in Brooklyn, because he had been videotaping a tall building that, unbeknownst to him, contained an FBI office?

Within a week, the arresting agent, James P. Wynne, concluded that Bajracharya was innocent of any crime beyond over-staying his work visa. But Bajracharya was not deported for three months, during which time he was kept in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep, stripped, mocked, and manhandled. The Capraesque part is that throughout this ordeal, Bajracharya's only friend, the one who kept appealing for his release and finally enlisted the help of Legal Aid, was Agent Wynne.

Strong stuff, but affirmative in the end, and certainly not more brutal  than the market will bear. What Spielberg does best is wrap smooth, tasty technique around the wooden stick of a good story. There is no such stick holding up The Terminal, so it melts into a smooth, tasty puddle.

July 15, 2004 12:20 PM |



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