The initial idea for Spielberg’s latest sprung from the real case of Alfred Merhan, an Iranian man who, by a bizarre bureaucratic quirk, lived in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport for 11 years. A better film exists about him: British photographer Glen Luchford’s ‘From Here to Where’ blends fact and fiction by featuring a determined American filmmaker trying to document Merhan’s life.
How prophetic. All ties to reality, however, are much looser here. Forever the crowd-pleaser, Spielberg ditches Iran and France (funny, that) in favour of a lovable east European – Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) – and New York’s JFK airport, where Viktor is stranded following a coup in his homeland. Face-to-face with the unerring machinery of the state, the bumbling Viktor shacks up in the departures lounge, has a fleeting affair with a passing air hostess (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and even plays cupid to a Mexican airport worker (Diego Luna) and his belle.
Spielberg’s desire to highlight the power of the state against the little guy is flawed by a resort to light comedy or soppy romance at every turn. His wholesale recreation of the minutiae of an international airport is gratifying (see Longshots), but it becomes a theatre for too many incoherent or compromised arguments. Does Viktor have to be a likeable guy to deserve fair treatment? Is the entire immigration system rotten, or, as Spielberg suggests, is only the character of one over-ambitious immigration officer (Stanley Tucci) in need of redemption? There’s the potential here for a chilling critique of American bureaucracy or a light, measured romance in the vein of ‘Lost in Translation’. Ultimately, it straddles both and achieves neither.