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Time Suspended

The basic idea of The Terminal, Steven Spielberg's new film, comes from the story of an Iranian citizen who became trapped in a Paris airport with an invalid passport. He could neither enter France nor go home. With this fact as base, Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson have fashioned a screenplay for Spielberg--original story by Gervasi and Andrew Niccol--set in the international terminal of Kennedy Airport in New York.

That basic idea is stimulating. Airports, as experiences, are haunting. I have never been in an airport in any country when I did not feel that I was, if only briefly, immured--cut off from normal life even as it is visible from the windows. That entrapment, I thought, could be an apt start for film imagining. For myself, two views of airports prevail. First, a major airport terminal is a commercially compressed caricature of the civilization around it. The shops, the food places that range from grub counters to mock-luxurious restaurants, the ubiquitous television screens blazoning various kinds of drivel, the omnipresent neon nimbus that is vaguely nauseating, the conflicting traffic patterns of anxious motion and boring stasis, the sense that the control of one's life is in the hands of invisible scoffing powers--all these form a closely packed cartoon of the world outside.

And there is an entirely different terminal nightmare. It has nothing at all to do with the world around it. The traffic outside is a clever illusion. Instead, the terminal is a space station far away from planet Earth, with Earth- based planes arriving and departing. Perhaps, one can think, the terminal is a way station of the afterlife. All of us here have died. The planes bring the newly deceased: then, after some period of airport limbo, take them on into infinity.

I hoped that Spielberg, whose imaginative faculty is well proved, would go far beyond my own conceits. But he went nowhere. After he chose the airport and the stranded man, it seems that he was stuck. He didn't know what to do with that man for the duration of the film. Spielberg apparently viewed his film as a two-hour container that had to be stuffed with material. What his writers and he have come up with is a screenplay that practically moans with desperation at the burden of filling those two hours.

The protagonist is Viktor Navorski (not Victor Navasky, who is someone else). He comes from a country named Krakozia, which has had a revolution while he was in flight; the change of government invalidates his papers. He cannot enter America or go home. He must wait--for almost a year, as it turns out. That year is treated by Spielberg without any perceptive response to the terminal as such and, aside from superficial irritations, utterly without any exploration of the effect on Viktor of his statelessness. The two hours are filled somehow: a romance with an airline hostess who is otherwise engaged; another romance between a new friend, a food handler who feeds Viktor, and a customs woman; an argumentative Indian sweeper; pratfalls on slippery floors; a renovation project in the terminal on which Viktor (who is a professional builder) works; a running vaudeville routine between him and the government official in charge of his case; and other wisps. In short, any inspiration that the setting and the man's political dilemma might have evoked is jettisoned--for scraps of old movies.

This is somewhat shocking. Spielberg's career has ranged from the exalted (Schindler's List) to the extraordinary (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to the cheerily entertaining (E.T. and Catch Me If You Can) to fare intended, as they say, for children of all ages (Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park), but even at the low end of the Spielberg spectrum, there has always been some air of ingenuity, some sense of the maker's excitement. Not here. The Terminal plods in spirit and execution.

Alex McDowell designed a cruelly veristic immense terminal for the film. Michael Kahn edited the picture adroitly, trying to lift some limp material. Janusz Kaminski, a marvelous cinematographer, didn't get much chance for marvels but supplied what the film needs. Catherine Zeta-Jones, as lovely as ever, is authentic in the few good moments that the cobbled-up hostess role allows her. Stanley Tucci clearly knows that he has a clichd part as the beleaguered government official and does his best to give it some polish.

The disappointment in the cast is, once again, Tom Hanks, who plays Viktor. The man who gave such full performances in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump and A League of Their Own has of late been gliding through roles rather than inhabiting them. This was first apparent in Saving Private Ryan, in which he had a decently rounded character and simply did not authenticate it. In The Terminal the gliding is even worse, because the role is a thing of shreds and patches. Hanks tried to characterize Viktor's walk, but that was about all the creation. (The reason for Viktor's American visit, when we finally learn it, makes the role even more of a figment of story conferences--and almost excuses Hanks's failure to realize it.)

But the worst disappointment is with Spielberg. To expect, even to hope for, another Schindler's List would be unreasonable. But where at least is the dexterous entertainer? In The Terminal, the Indian sweeper turns out to be an ingenious juggler. The ingenious Spielberg turns out to be an airport sweeper.

The Russian director Alexander Sokurov last presented Russian Ark, a film done in one continuous take that traveled through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg with a double excitement--what we saw and the vehicle of motion through which we were seeing it. Sokurov's latest film, Father and Son, returns to the style of his earlier work, Mother and Son. Reportedly, there is to be a third, constituting a trilogy--in method, not in story, a method quite unlike Russian Ark, which apparently was a mobile holiday for him.

As he did in the mother film, Sokurov here concentrates on two elements, time and immersion. In every sequence, he bids time stand still so that he can drain every dram of relevant emotion from it. If two men speak together, he positions them close to each other--European ideas of conversational space between people are different from ours in any case--and has them treat every utterance like a morsel of food on which their lives depend. The story as such is virtually non-existent. A youth in his teens is a cadet in a military school; his father lives nearby; the youth has a girlfriend; he has male friends. Some things happen in the course of eighty-four minutes, but our looking at them is, to Sokurov, more important than what happens. And we look at them through a fairly constant filter of sepia that keeps the scenes consciously pictorial.

In the opening sequence two bodies are clasped in a sort of motion with each other. We assume that sex is in process. We learn that they are both male, which alters the first impression only partially. Then we discover that they are a father and son, with the father comforting the son, who has had a nightmare. Sokurov uses the occasion as a chance for absorption in the auras of two bodies, in restrained and carefully conditioned light, with our initial false assumptions as part of the design.

Sokurov thus is much less interested in the traditional or even the conventionally unconventional. Father and Son, like Mother and Son, is an attempt to penetrate recesses in human beings through fixedness, communion through intensity. The result can be--sometimes is--tedium; but, whether or not the work succeeds as Sokurov intended, it is an adventurous director's probe of cinema possibilities.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.