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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lim

MF 345 : Summer movie series: The Terminal (2004)

Updated: Jun 16, 2022

This week, I take a look at the highly underrated film, The Terminal (2004). More at

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Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.

The only movie, in which product placement made me smile

It's hard to resist travel puns with this movie. "Flew under the radar," "didn't quite land" are two that I use a lot in talking about The Terminal.

If you're a movie lover, you have that one special movie that you feel like didn't get a fair shake. The one that should have done better and had all the makings of a hit. The Terminal (2004) is that for me. Directed by Steven Spielberg with a star studded cast, including Tom Hanks in the lead, and garnished with a wonderful score by composer John Williams, it had the ingredients to be a winner. I often scratch my head as to why the movie didn't resonate or do better at the box office.

While the film didn't do poorly, it certainly isn't remembered as one of Spielberg or Hanks's best. If I had to guess, the story of a guy stuck at the airport for months didn't ... "land" with people, especially since the premise sounds like our worst travel nightmare come true. However, now that we're slowly moving back to normal in 2021 with travel ticking up this summer, I invite you to take a look at this underrated film.

Tom Hanks plays Victor Navorski who travels from his homeland, the fictional Krakotia, a remnant of the former Soviet Union, to New York City. The reason for his trip is a mystery, save for a promise that he made to his late father long ago that he has locked up inside an old peanut can. As he lands at an unnamed airport, he's caught within an international snag. While en route, Krakotia was seized in a military coup and technically no longer exists. Thus, Navorski's passport isn't valid and he can neither be granted entry to the US nor allowed to go back.

Enter Frank Dixon, the Homeland Security official stationed at the airport. Dixon is a by-the-book, no nonsense type. He runs a tight ship and has ambitions to climb the government ladder. Fish adorn his wall because of course that would be his competitive sport alongside generic motivation posters that were a cultural hallmark of the early 2000s. Dixon is expertly played by Stanley Tucci and he doesn't like Victor Navorski. To him, Navorski represents confusion, chaos, and a serious wrinkle in the well oiled machine that he operates. But Dixon and Navorski have one thing in common. They both want to make this situation as temporary as possible.

However, fate and events overseas have other plans. As the film progresses, Victor has to make due with being stuck at the airport. Tom Hanks is perfectly cast in this role. He's an earnest man with a heart of gold who struggles to use a phone card, communicate in English, and understand the sarcasm of the airport's custodian, memorably played by Kuma Pallana, who tells him to "make an appointment" when he accidentally sweeps up Victor's food vouchers. Yet, despite these setbacks, Victor understands just enough to make the best of the situation. He adapts to his life at an airport, first by eating crackers and ketchup, then upgrading to hamburgers from Burger King when he starts a small business taking carts back to their stations and collecting the coins. He makes a bed out of two old chairs at a closed off section of the airport that's under repair, which later becomes a bedroom when he takes on a construction contracting job that pays him under the table. And in one of the most memorable scenes, Victor teaches himself English while locked inside a Borders' bookstore after hours so he can communicate with Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta Jones), a flight attendant who frequently travels in and out of the airport. Warren is having an affair with a married man and turns her schedule upside down in the hopes that he will leave his wife for her. Yet, she knows that it's just a pipe dream. She's lonely and resigned to chasing something that she'll never catch, until she meets Victor; someone who quite literally will never leave her because he's stuck right where she is.

Slowly but surely, Victor starts to make friends with the people at the airport and becomes a beloved member of this motley community. He encourages a shy kitchen worker named Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna) to reveal his feelings to a cautious CBP officer named Delores Torres (Zoe Saldana) who has been hurt in the past. Victor spends every day filling out forms that he submits to Officer Torres, which she stamps red. When asked why he does this, he responds that there's a 50-50 chance it will be green. It's this optimism and earnestness that breaks through Torres's usually stern demeanor and unleashes a smile. And we can't help but smile too. Moreover, this movie has the first (and probably the only) effective use of Sbarro as a romantic setting.

The Terminal (2004) isn't filled with chases, explosions, or international intrigue, aside from CNN headlines flashing on TV screens hanging from support pillars inside the airport. There's no real bad guy here and while the setting is unusual, the conflicts, problems, and hopes of the people within this airport are very real and relatable.

While not a perfect film, this is a feel good story about good people. Whether you're traveling or staying home this summer, The Terminal (2004) will take you on a Capra-esque adventure right inside an international airport.

The good:

  • Fantastic performances, especially from Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Kuma Pallana.

  • Beautiful sets, including an airport terminal that was created for this film.

  • Excellent score from John Williams.

The bad:

  • Some story threads are not adequately followed-up on or developed.

  1. In the beginning, we see Victor Navorski struggling to use a calling card at a payphone to contact his family back home. This is never followed-up on.

  2. The b-story involving a romance between Enrique and Dolores could have used more development, though the payoff is beautifully satisfying.

  3. Amelia Warren's storyline isn't wrapped up in a satisfactory way.


  • **** (out of five)

Where you can watch The Terminal (2004)

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