THE TERMINAL, the 2004 film from Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hank and Catherine Zeta-Jones opened to middling audiences and mixed reviews. Although critics lauded Hanks’ performance, the film was not a runaway hit at the box office. There was much to like about this film but one creative mistake drastically undercut its emotional power and box office impact.
What Went Wrong?
Tom Hanks, playing Vicktor Novorski, is the film’s star and occupies most of the screen time. Unfortunately, Vicktor is not the protagonist of the film. Neither the biggest emotional journey nor the emotional climax of the film belongs to Hanks. This a fatal flaw from which the film never recovers.
THE TERMINAL is a charming feel good story about a hapless Eastern European, Vicktor Novorski (Tom Hanks), trapped in an airport when his country, Krakozhia, is thrown into turmoil by a coup. His visa is no longer valid because his country no longer exists politically.
Vicktor can neither enter the US nor leave the airport premises until the situation is resolved and a new visa is issued. The character is physically stuck and static throughout the film.
There is no internal conflict between what he wants (his goal or objective) and what he needs (a larger missing element in his life). Vicktor is a passive likeable guy trapped in a cul-de-sac. His main activity is patient and persistent waiting.
No Emotional Journey
Emotionally, Vicktor goes nowhere and does nothing. Although he finds friends and discovers how to survive in the airport, he learns or realizes nothing of consequence emotionally at the end of the film that he didn’t already know at the beginning of the film. He discovers nothing new about himself along the way.
He is not transformed in any significant way by his experiences. Vicktor is the same gentle, genial, anguished but honorable person in the beginning that he is at the end. His internal journey is the emotional equivalent of watching paint dry.
The result is entirely predictable and without much suspense or surprise. We never fear he will do the wrong thing because he is consistently sweet-tempered and generous from the beginning.
Diluting a Weak Payoff
Early on we see Vicktor forego permission to leave the airport premises in order to aid a complete stranger, a man stopped temporarily in the airport with contraband Canadian prescription drugs for his father. Decent, honorable Vicktor makes the choice to sacrifice his own desires and an offer of freedom to aid a stranger in need.
Later, when faced with the same choice, to forgo his quest to save his closest airport friends, does the audience ever doubt that Vicktor will make the same sacrifice? Of course, Vicktor gives up his objective to save his airport friends from trouble. To sacrifice for one’s friends is a far easier choice than to sacrifice for someone you don’t know and will never see again.
This lowers the emotional stakes— it doesn’t raise them. Vicktor does the expected, again, but in a watered down form.
No Suspense or Surprise
A film doesn’t build interest and suspense by diminishing the emotional cost of an action. Characters should make progressively harder choices —not progressively easier ones. The film’s sequencing of events further diminishes the paltry emotional catharsis for the character.
The story resolution also lacks any suspense or obstacle. Once Vicktor is free to leave the airport he obtains his final objective with little effort. His mission is to complete his dead father’s autograph collection, inspired by the famous “Great Day in Harlem” photograph of 1950’s jazz legends.
He has the precise address where the missing musician can be located. Vicktor makes a bee-line to the club and immediately finds the musician, who complies effortlessly with the request. Vicktor gives up nothing of value to conclude his journey. He ultimately pays no personal price other than the time and patience necessary to wait out his temporary limbo. Vicktor undergoes no personal transformation and learns nothing of consequence emotionally along the way.
The Terminal and E.T.
I believe Spielberg has remade a lesser version of E.T. in THE TERMINAL His fatal mistake in the current film is to cast a star (Hanks) in the alien’s role and center the film around him.
Although E. T. is the title character in the earlier film the little creature is not that film’s protagonist. Elliot played by Henry Thomas is the protagonist in E.T. The decision to make Vicktor the protagonist in THE TERMINAL sank the film emotionally and at the box office.
Let’s look at the similarities: Both films are about aliens who are involuntarily stranded on foreign soil
➢ E.T. is left behind when his mother ship makes a hasty exit and vanishes
➢ Vicktor is stranded when his country vanishes in a swift political coup
Both aliens simply want to collect some artifact and then go home
➢ E.T. collects the “exotic” local flora
➢ Vicktor collects an “exotic” local autograph
Both aliens are sweet-tempered and gentle creatures from beginning to end. Although they don’t change personally they do change the lives of those around them
➢ E.T. has an enormous impact on Elliot, his friends and family
➢ Vicktor has an enormous impact on his airport friends and family
Both aliens are eager to return home and do, in fact, go home at the end of the film
➢ E.T.’s ship returns to collect him and he returns to his home planet
➢ Vicktor’s country returns to the political map and he returns to a new Krakozhia
Both aliens inspire another, who seems to be insignificant and powerless, to a feat requiring great daring and courage
➢ E.T. inspires Elliot, a small child, to defy the government
➢ Vicktor inspires Gupta, a lowly janitor, to defy the airport administration and the government
Both aliens initially inspire fear in their unlikely champions
➢ Gupta frets that Vicktor is a government operative or spy and worries obsessively about what will happen if the airport crew helps Vicktor
➢ A creature from outer space initially does inspire fear.
Both of the aliens’ champions rally others to help aid in the cause
➢ Elliot enlists his brother and his friends to race to E.T.’s rescue
➢ Gupta distributes posters and rallies the other airport workers to Vicktor’s plight.
In E. T. Elliot is the protagonist. He’s the one who learns the most and has the biggest emotional journey. In THE TERMINAL the person who changes the most and has the biggest emotional journey is not Vicktor Novorski (Tom Hanks) it is Gupta Rajan (Kumar Pallana) the airport janitor.
Gupta’s Emotional Journey
To find the major emotional journey in THE TERMINAL look no further than the curmudgeonly airport cleaner. At the beginning of the film Gupta is afraid and deeply suspicious of Vicktor’s story. The janitor worries Vicktor may be a government spy, possibly working for the CIA.
At the end of the film Gupta believes so deeply in Vicktor’s cause that he tells all the airport workers Vicktor’s story and distributes photocopied posters in support of Vicktor. In the end, the elderly janitor sacrifices his own freedom and safety to aid in Vicktor’s quest.
Gupta goes from worrying, hiding and living in fear to stepping out, standing alone against monolithic bureaucracy and becoming a courageous champion. That’s a huge emotional journey.
Over the course of the film we learn that Gupta had a little shop in his own country. He was continually pressed by government functionaries who demanded ever-increasing bribes. One day Gupta snapped and a greedy official wound up dead. Gupta fled.
He is hiding in America illegally, trying desperately to be invisible. This insignificant elderly man, who keeps his head down and toils as menial airport worker, is a very unlikely potential hero. Just as the very young Elliot, an easily ignored middle child, is an unlikely hero.
At the end of the film, however, the seemingly unimportant and lowly Gupta emerges from hiding. He discovers a tremendous well of courage within himself. Gupta brings a 747 to a halt with his broom to free Vicktor. The visual image of this little old man on the tarmac is incredibly powerful. It is even reminiscent of that striking image of the unnamed student who stood in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The old man strides fearlessly onto the airport runway. He is completely dwarfed by the massive and seemingly unstoppable plane. Gupta stands his ground without flinching, and, brandishing a mop as his only weapon, brings the advancing airliner to a standstill.
As a result the old man is led away in handcuffs. Is there any question that the film’s emotional climax belongs to Gupta?
THE TERMINAL is headlined by one of the most beloved actors of his generation. Many critics believe this is among the best performances of Tom Hanks’ career. He is wonderfully directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the most accomplished and popular directors of all time.
The film’s production values are superb. No expense was spared to create a visually appealing and incredibly realistic set. And yet, the film was a critical disappointment and, for all the star power involved, returned a less than stellar result at the box office.
Star power, brilliant performances, directorial flair, lavish production budgets and savvy marketing plans combined cannot substitute for a clear emotional journey on the part of the protagonist. If the protagonist’s journey isn’t clear and compelling then the audience doesn’t feel satisfied. If the audience is not satisfied, the film won’t generate blockbuster tickets sales.