Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, together again. Master plan? ''My dumb luck,'' insists the director, for whom Hanks previously anchored ''Saving Private Ryan'' and ''Catch Me if You Can.'' Hanks nursed an early ''Terminal'' script by Andrew Niccol (''The Truman Show'') and Sacha Gervasi (cowriter of the comedy ''The Big Tease'') through development for over a year before Spielberg got interested. The basic plot: Immigrant Viktor Navorski (Hanks) lands in New York City to discover that a military coup has nullified the government of his Eastern European homeland, a fictitious place called Krakozhia. He's a man without a valid passport and thus without a country, unable to leave the airport -- so he starts living there.
The scenario was inspired by the real-life plight of Iranian exile Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who's bedded down at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris for years -- though profiles of the man suggest that the snafu that stranded him there could now be resolved if he chose to leave. ''Not to cast aspersions on the guy,'' says Hanks, ''but there might be some surrealistic behavior there.... [He's] a fascinating individual whose story would make a better documentary than it would a film.'' Niccol and Gervasi had little trouble fictionalizing Nasseri into Navorski, but reality still intruded. ''It was [initially] written in a pre-9/11 world,'' says Hanks. ''It was rooted in the way airports used to operate, when there was a great degree of freedom to move about. The two big questions were, Can it accurately reflect a post-9/11 world, and should it?''
Directors Sam Mendes, Robert Zemeckis, and Lasse Hallström reportedly kicked the project's tires. But it was Spielberg who climbed aboard after a new script draft by Jeff Nathanson (''Catch Me'') updated the airport mood to a higher-alert state. Spicing up the story line are a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who falls in love with Navorski, a martinet security chief (Stanley Tucci, who reports the script was ''strong but always in flux''), and what Spielberg calls a ''beautiful, Damon Runyonesque international motley crew of travelers and airport workers.'' Production designer Alex McDowell (''Minority Report,'' ''The Cat in the Hat'') built an enormous faux terminal inside a 747 hangar in Palmdale, Calif., the second-largest set of Spielberg's career (the first being the landing strip in ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind''). Film buffs may also notice passing visual echoes of French director Jacques Tati's 1967 comedy ''Playtime,'' the opening of which is set in a blandly homogenized airport and to which Spielberg says he's paying ''very slight homage'' here.
THE GOOD NEWS You can't beat the talent's track record.
THE BAD NEWS Launch an Oscar hopeful in midsummer and you may find yourself in ''Road to Perdition'' territory.