Movies

America’s Dad Is Lonelier Than Ever

In recent movies like Finch, Tom Hanks’ once-genial everyman doesn’t have much use for humanity.

Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, Finch, News of the World, and Greyhound.
Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, Finch, News of the World, and Greyhound. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc, Sony Pictures Releasing, Apple TV, and Universal Pictures.

In Tom Hanks’ latest movie, the beloved actor plays a man living in isolation from the rest of humanity and making his way through a sometimes-harsh environment, giving the star the opportunity to act opposite an untraditional and unemotive screen partner. The movie is Finch, a sci-fi drama now on Apple TV+, but on paper it sounds a lot like Cast Away, the blockbuster survival drama that netted Hanks a Best Actor nomination in 2001. (Finch is even executive-produced by Cast Away’s Robert Zemeckis, a longtime Hanks pal.) But while Finch is probably the closest Hanks has ever come to reviving that particular and distinctive midcareer triumph, it’s not exactly an anomaly in Hanks’ filmography, especially when you look at the past two decades. In this late stage, Hanks’ all-American everyman has increasingly found himself going it alone, replacing the team efforts of Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan, and the romantic devotion of Forrest Gump and You’ve Got Mail, with stories that deal more explicitly with solitude.

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At the time of its release, Cast Away felt like a novelty act, albeit one executed with great skill. The production built in a six-month break to allow Hanks to lose weight and grow a mountain-man beard, and for much of the film, America’s favorite actor was playing a virtuosic yet naturalistic solo, his only screen partner a volleyball with a face painted in blood. (He received an Oscar nomination for his trouble, as is customary; it’s also one of his best performances.) Finch gives him more, relatively speaking: He shares scenes with a real dog and then, later, a robot, whom his dying title character has engineered to take care of said dog after he dies. The robot is a lifelike motion-capture special effect, played on set by the actor Caleb Landry Jones, and Finch spends much of the back half of the movie teaching his synthetic charge about their postapocalyptic world.

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Initially, Finch looks like he could be the last man on Earth; the movie takes place after solar flares have accelerated a dangerous heating of the planet’s atmosphere. But eventually it becomes clear that he’s deliberately avoiding other survivors. After witnessing a horrific scene earlier in the apocalypse, a spooked and unnerved Finch takes solace in the uncomplicated affections of his dog and, eventually, the restraint of his robot companion, who has been programmed not to cause harm. In last year’s News of the World, Hanks plays another man with few personal attachments, wandering another barren landscape—in this case, the American West after the Civil War— who eventually helps a different childlike protégé (in this case, an actual child) learn about how the world works. But unlike Cast Away’s Chuck Noland, Finch and News of the World’s Jefferson are engaged in a more voluntary form of solitude. Chuck has the horrors of isolation thrust upon him when he crashes onto an unpopulated island; Finch and Jefferson use isolation to protect themselves from the horrors of humanity.

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Finch and Jefferson might not think of their isolation as voluntary so much as necessary, but Hanks is choosing his own fate. In recent years, he has repeatedly sought out lonely and isolated characters, and once you start examining other late-period Hanks roles for these qualities, it becomes as clear a running theme as his predilection for playing captain-and-commander types. Even two of those captain-type characters, in Sully and Greyhound must ultimately make life-and-death decisions that create an invisible distance between them and the other characters. In the little-seen but worthwhile A Hologram for the King, Hanks plays a salesman attempting to close a deal in Saudi Arabia and spends much of the movie adrift in another country, trying and failing to gain an audience with his potential customer—quite a contrast from the can-do spirit of the similarly themed Larry Crowne. Even Hanks’ honeyed Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood spreads his gentle goodness from a sort of remove, whether he’s reaching out through the TV screen, or gnomically conversing with a troubled reporter. It’s what makes the movie more intriguing than a traditional biopic.

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It’s not unusual to see Hanks play characters with reservoirs of sadness or even a certain opacity. He has always been a more complicated and rangier actor than his good-guy image projects. But his tendency to isolate on screen has been especially noticeable as Hanks has transitioned out of the status he held, from roughly 1993 through 2004, as America’s favorite leading man. (One of the first signs that his star power could no longer guarantee a massive hit: 2004’s The Terminal, in which he plays a man cut off from his fictional Eastern European homeland, trapped in airport limbo.) Many of these later-period roles—historical dramas; stories of Americana; a Western, for god’s sake—have an innate dad-ness that feels compatible with his role as a baby boomer carrying a torch for the greatest generation. (Outside of his acting, he produces docudramas about World War II and NASA, and collects and uses old manual typewriters.) Yet these movies don’t exactly drape his characters in fatherly glory, even when they’re performing acts of decency or heroism. Instead, later Hanks characters tend to confront both their own mortality, as well as the notion that decency alone may not bring them peace. Think of the nightmares that linger with Captain Sullenberger after his “Miracle on the Hudson,” or the devastating final scene of Captain Phillips, where Hanks’ character, following a harrowing confrontation with hijackers, is finally given space away from his responsibilities to sit with the trauma he’s experienced, and breaks down.

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There’s continuity between these reality-based figures and the fictional lonely guys Hanks has played over the past year, as if the experiences are lingering across his characters. In Finch, his face looks weathered—not particularly with age (he could probably still pass for a decade younger than his 65 years), but with sadness and worry. He does something remarkable with his voice, sounding reedier and more self-conscious as he tries to impart some lessons to his robot companion and cover up his sickness (even though there’s sometimes not another human around for miles). This isn’t his finest work of the past decade; that’s probably Phillips, or his wonderful performance in 2015’s Bridge of Spies, where his all-American decency was stricken with shadowy Cold War espionage and a head cold. But the physical transformation of Finch—less immediately obvious than Cast Away’s—shares with those films a sense of a toll being taken on a familiar face.

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Given how rarely recent Hanks films place him opposite another performer of his stature, one might reasonably scan them for signs of the last-remaining-movie-star vanity sometimes glimpsed in projects from past-their-peak megastars like Tom Cruise or Will Smith, where larger-than-life figures remake their images into weary gods, toiling among us for our betterment. Instead, the failings of News of the World and Finch are more in tune with the classic Hanks sensibility: gentler, soft-spoken, a little old-fashioned. Although both movies trade on the experience of watching Jimmy Stewart–ish everyman Tom Hanks lose some of his faith in humanity, turning inward in times of strife, and committing himself to projects that exclude human attachments, they’re nonetheless steadfastly unwilling to give in to hopelessness. Two Tom Hanks movies in the space of a year telling us we’re all doomed might well be a sign of the actual apocalypse. News of the World and Finch back away from the abyss carefully and politely; ultimately, they’re less open-ended than Cast Away, which made its bittersweet dilemmas more personal than sociological.

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Still, there’s collective power in these late-period Hanks movies, even when some of them fall short individually. Consciously or not, he’s using his star persona to grapple with the limits of the decency he’s long been associated with, and recognizing that loneliness and disappointment can’t always be overcome with a well-engineered raft and the usual triumphs of the human spirit. Their pervasive sense of isolation even speaks, accidentally, to nearly two years of pandemic disconnection—it dovetails, almost eerily, with the fact that Hanks was an early famous face of COVID-19 infection. Even America’s dad, our turn-of-the-century Jimmy Stewart, isn’t immune to lurking despair.

When he first tested positive, Hanks put a good face on it, even appearing on an at-home edition of Saturday Night Live to lightly joke about his recent ailment and reassure viewers that we were all in this together. But while that’s more or less the underlying tone of Finch as well, there are quiet moments where he allows that sense of comfort to fall away: He retreats into emotional constipation, tinkering with a personal project in the basement rather than confronting his fears head-on. At one point early on, the robot asks a simple question about his job, which is to care for the dog in Finch’s absence: “When will you be absent?” Even though Finch has prompted this question by asking the robot to define “absence,” Hanks makes it clear that his character still doesn’t have an answer at the ready. He quavers his mouth ever so slightly and hesitates before he’s saved from the question by the generator cutting off. Rather than acting like an idealized father, soft-spoken and wise, Hanks comes across more like a stereotypically distant dad, muttering “shit” but secretly relieved to return to his tinkering. It’s both instantly recognizable as a familiar sort of older-man insecurity, and a little unnerving to see coming from this longtime beacon of hope, like suddenly realizing how much a close relative has aged. After years of being described as an everyman, Hanks seems more willing than ever to acknowledge the fallibilities this can entail. Finch’s big project may have positive ramifications for humanity, but he’s mostly interested in ensuring the temporary safety of his pet, a gesture that entwines touching relatability with selfishness. (The world may be left in rough shape, but Finch’s dog will be OK.) In News of the World, his taciturn hero is also a haunted, self-exiled ex-Confederate. These are arguably more realistic evocations of the everyman than his characters in Apollo 13 or Saving Private Ryan, who as far as we can see, start off better than decent and then further rise to the occasion.

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Hanks has often dismissed those repeated Jimmy Stewart comparisons with humility, but they feel especially instructive now, as he reaches a phase of his career that actors of Stewart’s generation more often opted out of. Stewart also complicated his good-guy image with some of his later roles, but receded from starring in movies in his 60s, as was common at the time. Hanks has pressed forward, spending time in the uncertainty of that last shot in Cast Away, the one that depicts him alone, at a literal crossroads. That may be why both News and Finch are more striking before their mildly heartwarming conclusions. They feel like recurring anxiety dreams from an actor who still tries to appeal to our better nature, but fears a lonely void as much as anyone else.

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