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Subdued but still pure Spielberg

'The Terminal,' in its quiet way, deals with the same themes the director's blockbusters have long addressed.

June 21, 2004|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

There was a time when a Steven Spielberg summer movie was the surest bet a thrill-hungry kid could hope for, and the box office usually showed it. But with the release on Friday of the comedy-drama "The Terminal," Spielberg is securing his bid to be the surest bet a smarts-starved adult could make in a popcorn-filled movie season.

This shift for the legendary director has been underway for years, since his Holocaust epic, "Schindler's List," revealed a willingness to tackle weightier material. "The Terminal" tells the story of an Eastern European traveler named Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) who finds himself stranded for months inside JFK's international lounge when a military coup breaks out in his homeland -- perhaps the least flashy subject matter in the director's history. Even so, it does have Hanks, and Spielberg has described its massive airport set as his second biggest, next to the landing pad in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Nonetheless, he's made a film about being stuck in an airport, not an obviously appealing premise. Although DreamWorks SKG, which released "The Terminal," has maintained a somewhat lower promotional temperature than usual for the latest creation from Hollywood's most successful director and most bankable leading man, some say it's a sign of confidence in the Hanks-Spielberg track record.

"DreamWorks is playing it very smart," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. The 125-theater preview DreamWorks held the weekend before the film's release, although unusual for a Spielberg film and smaller than the typical 1,000-screen preview, was a sign of confidence too, he says. "They're not pushing this on the 30-plus or 40-plus or 50-plus audience like they would a typical kiddie movie. All older audiences have to see are two names, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, and they're sold."

Although the film came in second in weekend box office revenues, with an estimated $18.7 million, "it's the kind of movie they expect to be in for the long haul," says Brandon Gray, who runs the box office tracking website boxofficemojo.com. "When DreamWorks released 'The Road to Perdition' with Tom Hanks in 2002, that started modestly but still managed to get over $100 million."

But if the heart-tugging, even Chaplinesque, "The Terminal" doesn't result in the kind of blockbuster returns Spielberg is used to achieving, it still deals with themes that have entranced him for years: alienation, wonderment and subverting heartless authority. "The Terminal" is no less than a vision of America as a place where one's lot can be improved upon -- where the doors can open -- with the right amount of ingenuity and goodwill.

"It's the outsider trying to be accepted," says Joseph McBride, author of the 1997 book "Steven Spielberg: A Biography." He calls Hanks' Job-like, good-humored Navorski a "down-to-earth E.T. figure who comes here to remind us of what our country is supposed to stand for, 'compassion' as another character puts it, rather than being 'closed.' "

Also, the way Navorski subtly thwarts the efforts of the by-the-book airport official (Stanley Tucci) to make Navorski someone else's problem is in keeping with Spielberg's portrayal of bureaucracies -- whether it's the cover-up-crazed government in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" or the futuristic security state that has an innocent man on the run in "Minority Report" -- and echoes the manipulation of the Nazi system to save Jews in "Schindler's List."

Even "Jaws," the movie often cited as sparking the modern-blockbuster doctrine of flash over substance, now plays very much like a character study that puts societal outsiders -- a Jewish intellectual (Richard Dreyfuss), a beleaguered police chief (Roy Scheider) and a loner fisherman (Robert Shaw) -- in the roles of subversives when a shark menace is met with official indifference. "The mayor is trying to cover up what's going on, and the police chief is fighting city hall," says McBride.

Whether audiences go for a quieter Spielberg movie, re-teaming with Hanks was smart; the two-time Oscar-winning actor has a talent for luring ticket buyers to material that isn't easily categorized ("Forrest Gump") or might appear audience unfriendly ("Cast Away").

Dergarabedian points out that it will take two weekends to gauge how "The Terminal" plays. After that, July belongs to a certain web-slinger, he predicted: " 'Spider-Man 2' cuts into everybody's audience."

Judging from Spielberg's slate, he is not shying away from serious subjects anytime soon. Within weeks, he starts shooting a film set after the tragic events of the 1972 Munich Olympics, which he'll follow with a period tale of the rivalry between 19th century actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse.

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