Film Review

The Terminal

Review by Todd A. Comer


Vol. 9, No. 1 April 2005

The Terminal

[1] The Terminal is based on the true story of Iranian-born Merhan Karimi Nasseri who spent the majority of the last two decades living in the Charles de Gaulle airport due to a bureaucratic snafu. In Steven Spielberg's version of the story, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) discovers that his nation, Krakozhia (a fictional former Soviet republic), has undergone a revolution while he has been in transit to New York, leaving him without a valid passport and with no legal means to exit the airport terminal. He is literally imprisoned by Homeland Security embodied in the person of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). What ensues can best be likened to an extended yet subtle critique of Homeland Security and the possibility of freedom in an oppressive world.

[2] Like The Truman Show, also written by Andrew Niccol, The Terminal is very much about surveillance and power. In this case, borders are the major metaphor for control as is made abundantly clear when Dixon poses above a Borders bookstore sign.  Dixon's name, recalling the Mason-Dixon line, further reinforces the borders metaphor. Dixon is extremely legalistic and entirely self-obsessed.

[3] Viktor is above all a problem for Dixon, functioning as a possible obstacle to his promotion. As such, he wants Viktor to leave the airport even if that means he would quickly be picked up by another law enforcement office. Viktor, however, won't break the law by leaving. The terminal, a crossroads, also becomes a cross for Viktor, a devout Catholic who is on a mission for his dead father to collect a final autograph by a famous jazz musician before returning home to Krakozhia.

[4] In a particularly revealing scene, Dixon explains to Viktor that he can enter the US as a political refugee if he says that he is afraid of his homeland.

[5] "Not afraid," Viktor replies in his thick accent.

[6] Dixon is really asking for Viktor to assent to national borders and all that they entailseparation, hermeneutic simplicity, and fear. Dixon will allow Viktor his freedom if he will express fear and in that manner, implicitly acknowledge the nation state. Viktor finds victory by not feigning fear about his home. The ironic fact is that most of us cannot say the same. Viktor, a man from a "backwater" nation is unafraid while citizens of the US, an economic and military powerhouse, are confronted with fear constantly (on billboards, public service announcements, and so on).

[7] Before it is all over, Viktor is crucified in an astonishing manner. Having yet once more frustrated Dixon's desire, he is thrown against a copying machine and his hand is duplicated. Rather than nails, it is the agonizing experience of the bureaucratic paper milland all its corollaries: borders, and representation generallythat signifies sin and humanity's exclusion of and desire to be God.

[8] Viktor, of course, does cross the border and escape the terminal, or, rather, the terminal's border dissolves, freeing him to collect one last signature for his father. Crucifixion seems to be the major metaphor for agency in the film, but this controlling metaphor is complicated by the fact that Viktor's power is evident before the copier episode. Furthermore, the film's Christ imagery is muddied by several troubling questions: If Viktor is a Christ figure, how are we to understand the death of his father? Based on a reading of this film, is human agency grounded in God's death, since the death of God, for some, also means the death of Truth and, hence, the borders that stabilize a truthful reality? Or perhaps the film is suggesting that we need to look to something more mundane: the improvisational work of jazz, family, or death's power to undermine the Cartesian subject's myths and borders.

[9] The Terminal is a quietly amusing tale whose melodramatic elements are significantly moderated by a political subtext. With its sustained emphasis on the nature of borders and freedom, the film enters a dialogue whose recent history is bookmarked by Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Lars von Trier's Dogville

[This review benefited significantly from conversations with Jeremy Dowsett and Matthew McCrady]


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