PARIS — It is poised to become one of the biggest movies of the year. “The Terminal” is a moving tale, where Tom Hanks plays the victim of the modern world.
That a man could spend months stuck in diplomatic limbo living in an airport may seem far-fetched, but in fact, the movie is inspired by a real-life character who is living at terminal one of Paris Charles De Gaulle airport.
The living urban legend is Merhan Nasseri, known as “Sir Alfred” to those who work at the airport. Stranded without papers, Nasseri is a stateless refugee from Iran, unwanted by any nation—in 1988.
A red plastic bench beside a luggage store has been his home for no less than 15 years. Director Steven Spielberg may have moved the airport to New York for his movie and made Hank’s character East European, but there’s no doubt who the movie is based on.
For Nasseri, time is punctuated by the rhythm of the flights. Alfred keeps the boxes that are his home meticulously clean. He shaves in the airport bathroom.
The setting of Nasseri’s surreal existence was irresistible to Spielberg. “Where in one room can you meet everybody from every single country on the face of the planet? It’s usually in an airport.”
Nasseri is aware of the movie and is waiting for it to come out in Europe. He’s followed news about the movie through radio newspapers and magazines. Images of Tom Hanks portraying Viktor Navorski remind him of himself when he first arrived. Nasseri hopes that he’ll be able to see the movie when it opens in Paris. He even wants to meet Tom Hanks.
In the movie, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a clumsy stewardess who falls for the hero’s simple charm. But for Nasseri, that’s just Hollywood. He has no girlfriend to send his journals, and no family or real friends outside the airport.
He does get mail, though, sometimes addressed simply to “Alfred, Charles de Gaulle airport.”
Ironically, the snafu that caused his predicament has now been solved, and he has the papers to leave. The six-figure dollar sum the movie company has paid him should be enough to set him up. But still, his fragile mental state makes it difficult for him to imagine life outside. Nasseri says he’s lost confidence, and event rust for the people outside. He has spent some of his new-found money on a second set of clothes, and bought some more books—he has a BA is psychology—but otherwise, the money stays in the bank, and Nasseri, where he is.
So as Hollywood’s stars celebrate the premiere of “The Terminal,” the man who inspired it all was preparing for yet another night on the bench.
The ending of the movie is, of course, a happy one. But “Sir Alfred” will not head into the sunset with Catherine Zeta-Jones. He many never leave at all.