Spielberg's 'Terminal': A Holiday Hit in June

Spielberg's 'Terminal' | The Tony Awards

A Christmas Hit in June

You can't really tell from the posters or ads what the new Steven Spielberg movie "The Terminal" is supposed to be. Is it a comedy or a drama? Is it existential, philosophical or satirical? On Friday, I said the movie scored high with test audiences, and that a circled 85.7 indicated a B-plus grade. But DreamWorks' Diana Loomis pointed out to me that "The Terminal" actually scored a 90, which was also circled. "That's an A, the way you grade," she said cheerfully.

Well, last night I managed to wedge myself into a very small, private screening of "The Terminal" that was held for producers of TV talk shows who are going to be interviewing the cast this week. (The big screening is set for Thursday, and a premiere is being held in Los Angeles prior to the June 18 opening.) Conan O'Brien was there in the back row wearing a baseball cap. The lovely Sue Solomon attended from "The View." I guess we were all the people who didn't get invites to The Tony Awards!

So, what is "The Terminal?" In a nutshell, it's a Christmas movie delivered to us in June. It's very essentially Spielberg, and in the end it carries the message of his most beloved movies: it's about trying to get home.

Tom Hanks, bouncing back nicely from his bizarre turn in "The Ladykillers," is really terrific as Viktor Navorski, a refugee from a Russian satellite country who winds up without a passport when his government is overthrown during the course of his flight. Victor arrives at a JFK-like airport in New York and is unable to clear customs. He is stateless, and stuck in a diplomatic Twilight Zone. Unlike the man whose story "The Terminal" is loosely based on, however, Viktor is apolitical. He has simply come from Eastern Europe to New York on a personal mission. He plans on returning to his homeland when the mission is completed.

When the point of all this is finally revealed at the three-quarter mark you will either be moved or confused. I have to tell you, I thought it was poignant and worked. In fact, it was kind of genius. I won't tell you the whole thing, but it all has to do with the famous 1958 photograph, "A Great Day in Harlem," and jazz great Benny Golson.

Much of the film revolves around Hanks, whose character speaks a Russian dialect and very little English. The performance is certainly Oscar-worthy and among his best work. (It's a lot better than the dreadful "Cast Away," although Hanks' character here does share some of the same characteristics, at least in the beginning when he's stranded in the airport. A tin can of Planters Peanuts plays the role of Wilson the Soccer Ball in this movie, except this time there's a point.)

It helps, too, that Hanks doesn't showboat around in "The Terminal," but adds himself to the cast of wonderful character actors including Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana and the remarkable Indian actor Kumar Pallana.

Unlike some actors, Hanks, who's getting near 50, has allowed himself to age naturally. His face is a little puffy and there is a distinct piece of luggage under one eye. He is not what kids would call buff; in fact, he is now officially lumpy. All of this physicality adds to his character. His Viktor is extremely likeable and human, which is extremely important in order for Spielberg to sell this idea.

There's a lot to say about "The Terminal," all of it good. For one thing, the set, which looks like a very real airline terminal, was built in an airport hanger. For frequent fliers there are plenty of good inside jokes, too, and recognizable bizarre nuances. (Romantic rendezvous are made at the Sbarro. Existence in the airport is almost more surreal than in the chalk-marked town of "Dogville" in Lars von Trier's movie.)

My favorite scene, though, will always be a candlelight dinner set up in the terminal for Tom's character by airport workers with Catherine Zeta-Jones. (She plays the same stewardess-having-an-affair-with-a-married-pilot that Jackie Bisset played in "Airport" some three decades ago.) Two things about the dinner: First, they are presented with two choices for their main course — the chicken or the pasta — as if airplane dining is normal. Second, Spielberg tries his hand at a secondary visual joke for the first time I can think of, with the brilliant Pallana showing off his circus skills as the evening's entertainment. It's the kind of non sequitur Woody Allen invented, Mel Brooks expanded on and the Zucker brothers perfected. It's kind of nice to see Spielberg take a crack at it, and succeed.

A Sour Mary J., a Sweet Phylicia

Last night's Tony Awards — the first in years with some real nail-biters in the categories — featured a lot of celebrities who have nothing to do with Broadway. Some of them confirmed that on their own. R&B star Mary J. Blige, for example, hit every note except the right ones singing "What I Did For Love." Ouch! I guess she won't be replacing Deborah Cox in "Aida" anytime soon.

But the real lesson learned last night is that even the New York Times can't force the Tony committee into doing something wrong for Broadway. "Caroline, or Change," which the Times pushed down everyone's throats but is really tedious and insufferable, was shut out except for best featured actress in a play. To sit through "Caroline" is to really be tortured, I'm afraid, despite the best intentions and the wonderful Tonya Pinkins in the lead role. Always to be known as the musical without any songs, "Caroline" was swept aside by "Avenue Q." Score one for the Muppets.

Hugh Jackman won, which was a given from day one, for best actor in the dreadful musical "The Boy from Oz." Jackman is still so enthusiastic about playing Peter Allen, they had to give him the award. The best news was Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald each winning for "A Raisin in the Sun." They are phenomenal, and very lucky, in Rashad's case: If "Sight Unseen" had opened in time for the Tony deadline, Laura Linney might have snatched the Tony away from Rashad. That moment will have to wait for next year.