Jean-Paul Sartre said that he never felt more liberated than when he was trapped in a Nazi prison camp. Not that the place was a picnic, and Sartre was clearly of the antiauthoritarian sort. But the concept of achieving freedom through spatial constraint rings true, and it’s the reason why I’ve always had a fondness for "enclosed space" movies (a euphemism I use because it sounds much less sexually-tinged than "prison and prep school films"). Therefore, predictably, I’m a fan of the most recent pop culture example of this genre, The Terminal.
Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a visitor to New York from the fictional nation of Krakozhia. The country has a coup while his flight is in the air, and technicalities in U.S. immigration law force Viktor to live inside the international terminal at J.F.K. Airport for almost a year.
I would argue that what makes the movie artistically successful (despite its flaws) is that it takes place in an enclosed space, and what makes it very "of-the-moment," as many critics have indicated, stems from this enclosure.
First of all, other enclosed space stories abound in pop culture these days. In the upcoming Collateral, Tom Cruise plays a hit man who one night forces a taxi driver to take him from job to job. The Los Angeles Times called it a "No Exit noir," referring to the Sartre play that depicts hell as a waiting room (the director Michael Mann told the Times that 37 minutes of the film are inside the cab). Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s new film The Village" is about an isolated 19th Century Pennsylvania town in which the elders restrict the residents from entering the surrounding woods, for fear of disturbing the villainous, red-hooded creatures who live there. Fox’s new show The Jury depicts average citizens deciding cases while locked in a room. In October a revival of the classic jury play Twelve Angry Men opens on Broadway. And, of course, the most successful long-running reality series – The Real World, Big Brother, Survivor, and The Bachelor – more or less confine contestants to a house, a house, a remote location, and a mansion, respectively.
The small thrills of enclosed space drama come when the characters have to be resourceful. Who can forget when the prisoners in The Great Escape disposed of the dirt from their escape tunnels out the bottom of their pant legs? My favorite moment in Apollo 13 is when the scientists on the ground throw every object inside the spacecraft onto a table and attempt to construct an oxygen-creation device. Similarly, Tom Hanks’s character in The Terminal – like his characters in Apollo 13 and Cast Away – is forced to improvise, returning luggage carts and working construction to pay for food. The appeal of these moments stems from our primal ability to make something from nothing, to create societies that are both self-contained and self-sustaining.
The ultimate irony of the film, is how Victor, like Sartre, indirectly benefits from his spatial restrictions. In New York City he'd be another lost soul wandering the streets alone. In the terminal he makes friends though unavoidable contact with the same people each day. He’s conveniently available to do favors. Eventually he becomes a hero, sparking the jealousy of Stanley Tucci’s immigration officer, who is trying to break out of his own middle management hell.
Sartre’s existentialism argues that we all have freedom of choice, and that our ultimate responsibility for our lives is a burden we must endure. This would explain why we sometimes constrain ourselves or watch other people do so. For example, many of us devote much of our leisure time – not to mention an entire section of our newspaper – to sports, an activity that is comforting mainly because it’s constrained by space and rules. Think of the Sabbath and other traditions, religious and otherwise.
But such constraint is absent today more than ever. A new book by Swarthmore Psychology professor Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice argues that the number of consumer options – in markets from jeans to health insurance – have expanded tremendously. As a result, people are unhappier, because they regret their decisions or are so paralyzed they won’t make a decision at all. In the new book The Progress Paradox, New Republic Senior Editor Gregg Easterbrook argues that this "choice anxiety" is one reason why, compared to previous generations, Americans today have more luxuries but are less happy.
One reason for this expansion of options is that, as a result of technology, distance and space are not as limiting as they once were – a phenomenon otherwise known as globalization. Nowhere is globalization more evident than in The Terminal’s title location, as weary New York businessmen on their way to investigate an emerging market in China rush past foreign tourists eating Americanized international food from Sbarro or Baja Fresh.
In the 20th century, after America reached the West Coast, it had the will and the resources to expand beyond its borders, both politically and culturally. The film refers to this exportation of culture (spoiler coming) when it reveals that Viktor came to New York because his Krakozhian father was an ardent fan of jazz, an American genre with its roots in spatial constraint – slavery – that requires improvisation within restrictions of key, rhythm, and melody. But America’s expansion has also, of course, both inspired and angered enough outsiders to beget the immigration and homeland security bureaucracy that is the source of the film’s conflict.
This bureaucracy is embodied by Tucci’s character, who attempts to rid Viktor from the terminal in order to avoid having to look after the poor guy. And here, out of this entanglement of criss-crossing themes, we have arrived at the film’s ultimate statement, a variation on a slogan from another summer movie. As opposed to the captive Viktor and his presumably post-Communist Eastern European country, America is feeling Sartre’s existential burden: with great freedom comes great responsibility.