The castaway

Will Tom Hanks ever get off the feel-good island of superstardom?

Published January 12, 2001 8:14PM (EST)

On the surface, everything seems OK with "Cast Away." In only three weeks' business at the American box office it's done close to $150 million. It has Golden Globe nominations. The spin control at Fox and DreamWorks, which share distribution, marvels: The man's on-screen alone for an hour or more! He has no cover! You just have to sit back, wave your hands and say, "Guys, this is Tom Hanks. This is what Tom does every year or so."

But in the bowels of the nation's multiplexes, the mood is not the same. There's something sour in the way people regard this odd film and its doldrums. There's the start of exasperation. I don't think audiences know what it's about -- apart from being "about" Hanks, in the way shadows are about the sun. And being about Federal Express (more of which anon).

"Cast Away" isn't a tour de force; it's slow, predictable and boring, yet also pious, sanctimonious and burdened with airs of self-improvement, as if Hanks had thought, Gee, yes, let's do it -- let's have everyone feel that 1,500 days on a desert island would do them good, too. And strangest of all, the story is left there inert and undeveloped. We do not really see Chuck facing the hazards and difficulties of the island, much less the limits of his character. Instead, a kind of static personality simply triumphs -- or ignores more intriguing prospects. What he gives us, apart from his reputation as a great actor, is a mix of amiability and authenticity; you feel that it must have happened. Tom wouldn't do it otherwise, would he? He wouldn't do something invented. He is the actor of choice whenever life and history force themselves onto the screen. He is the exact marriage between America's dream of real, modest heroes and homespun, shy actors. He is our Jimmy Stewart.

Or is he just the brisk, friendly, efficient face of Federal Express? FedEx is the priority-mail delivery service that took over the nation's trust from the U.S. Postal Service; it charges high rates, but it has a spectacular record for reliable delivery. The company is based in Memphis, Tenn., and it enjoys a corps of young, profit-participating, religiously motivated workers. They are smart, fast, polite -- they are, for many of us, the best dream of efficiency available on earth. And Hanks, I think, after several emblematic roles now finds it natural and even necessary that he should play parts that speak to the nation.

Hanks' character in "Cast Away," Chuck Noland, is a FedEx executive troubleshooter, a company man who preaches the pressure of time to everyone. He's a success, yet too busy to notice. He has a perfect girlfriend (Helen Hunt); they have sex when their paths cross, but no time to develop a deeper relationship. Chuck is all nervous energy, naggy detail and crackling, empty camaraderie. It is the notion of the film that he is riding for a fall.

To that extent, the film is critical of FedEx's obsession with time and priority at the expense of substance. Still, this is a movie that goes way beyond the bounds of modern product placement. The screen here is a riot of white, purple and orange; FedEx aircraft, trucks, uniforms and packaging fill the movie's first 20 minutes. It is on a FedEx plane, over the Pacific, that Chuck is tossed into the ocean in a vivid crash.

It's plain that some kind of fate has elected to cast Chuck away, if only to see if he can find a life beyond filling FedEx time. What follows looks and feels like life -- or life rendered through hit TV shows such as "Survivor." See Chuck make fire. See Chuck eat crab. See Chuck gaze at a picture of Hunt.

There is such implied fact in seeing Hanks do this or that that we have to keep reminding ourselves that this isn't "based on a true story," as the movies like to say. There wasn't an actual Chuck Noland, and if there had been, he would have perished well short of 1,500 days. Lucy Irvine's 1983 book "Castaway" had two people going to a desert island as an experiment, with plenty of supplies and help. But that book makes clear that the two people suffered terribly from the diet, the exposure and the general decline in their health. Whereas Chuck, or Tom, turns into a lean, bronzed fighting machine capable of catching a fat, fleet fish at one thrust of a homemade spear.

Hanks thought of this film, and it seems fair to suppose that it is his fantasy in some part -- just what would happen to the world's most successful actor if he were cast away? Chuck isn't the smartest survivor. He does silly things: For a long time he studiously avoids opening the several FedEx packages that washed up on shore with him. It may seem a cute, touching point that this company man keeps the cartons intact out of duty. But Chuck is driven by relentless practicality. He'd pause 10 seconds before wondering whether there might be perishable foodstuffs he could eat -- or tools he could adapt.

In time, the plot allows him that wisdom, but even then the movie has it both ways -- storing up its own inane ending -- by having him keep one sacred package unopened. He eventually yields and opens all but that one package. Alas, he discovers only a Wilson volleyball. Chuck draws a face on the ball, calls it "Wilson" and begins a series of lamentable conversations. You're better off not recalling that the real Tom Hanks is married to actress Rita Wilson.

The forlorn truth about "Cast Away" is that the drama sags terribly on the island. The chats to Wilson may owe as much to screenwriter William Broyles Jr. as to Hanks -- though Hanks is one of four producers credited on the picture -- but they reveal a dreadful failure in this kind of American film to discover, let alone explore, the inner life. Hanks loses energy and focus. You come to realize how much, as a player, he depends on other people. In a way, that's a measure of just how good he is on-screen most of the time. But it's also an admission that the mainstream American movie does not yet know how to express those qualities of spirit or soul that Hanks feels, vaguely, are most lacking in Chuck.

There's something telling and poignant in an actor wanting a work to go deeper, yet finding that the best collaborators and the state of the medium just can't do it. The full impact of the failure dawns only after Chuck returns from the island. I don't want to go into it in detail for fear of spoiling the ending. On the other hand, there are endings so botched you have to wonder: Does it really matter?

"Cast Away" is a hollow fantasy, in which FedEx fidelity will solve Chuck's empty romantic space. You don't really believe in Chuck surviving, growing, or loving. You don't feel the threat of madness or irrational terrors. His sex life stops. I don't expect the picture to be sordid or clinical, yet that man on that island, I think, would masturbate. Most people do -- especially those with time on their hands, especially those, like Chuck, so busy they have to snatch satisfaction when they can. And it's the kind of omission that reflects too many people worrying over Hanks' image.

In comparison, Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" is a soaring fantasy on man's self-sufficiency, full of conviction, good husbandry and sound economics. Ironically enough, this 18th century novel is full of that FedEx thinking -- whereas Chuck, the cardinal modern FedEx man, turns out to have very few convictions.

And nothing like depth as an actor. Hanks, who turns 45 in July, is undoubtedly the most successful film star of the '90s. He began the decade with outright failures -- "Joe Versus the Volcano," "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "Radio Flyer," films that remind us how insecurely established he was as an engaging young comedian. But look at the list since then: the decrepit coach in "A League of Their Own" (1992); the hapless widower, opposite Meg Ryan, in "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993), a major romantic hit; a heartfelt lawyer with AIDS in "Philadelphia" (1993), for which he won an Oscar; the benign, all-containing and serenely bogus "Forrest Gump" (1994), for which he won another Oscar; Jim Lovell in "Apollo 13" (1995), his only real-life character; the doomed but transcendent captain in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998); reteamed with Ryan, and writer-director Nora Ephron, in "You've Got Mail" (1998); and "Cast Away" (2000).

I've met and interviewed Hanks. He's a decent, likable man who likes to talk and play off others -- he has a real, snappy humor, counterpunching the remarks of others. He has deep faith in mainstream entertainment -- why not? He is such a proof of its virtues, and he's genuinely touched and appreciative at being told that the actor from America's pantheon he most resembles is Stewart. He knows what that means of public trust and affection; and he surely appreciates the range Stewart had.

However, it's worth reminding ourselves that Stewart was 45 in 1953, the year he made "The Naked Spur," the first western in which his character was genuinely neurotic. He had ahead of him "Rear Window," "The Far Country," "The Man From Laramie," "Vertigo," "Anatomy of a Murder," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." I am thinking of films in which the actor tested and worried away at his own well-established likability, and became a little darker, a little colder and, certainly by the time of "Vertigo," closer to tragedy.

Could Hanks do those things? Could he be Scottie in "Vertigo"? Yes, I think he could. A little while ago I saw a searching interview with him in which he said that claustrophobia was the thing he hunted for in people. It was an uncommon answer, and it reflected a growing up that was neither easy nor comfortable. His parents divorced when he was 5, and Hanks was raised by a roaming dad who never settled down. There's pain in Hanks, and nastier streaks than he has shown yet. The chief problem he faces is his very importance and flaglike integrity. There are people who make movies who don't want to risk Hanks' appeal by having him get anywhere close to unpleasant.

Whereas Stewart -- who was big and important, yet an actor among others -- let that risk come up on him. Take Hanks' role in "Saving Private Ryan," a film made at the very top of Steven Spielberg's cinematic abilities, yet nearly overwhelmed by its sentimental framework and almost oppressive high-mindedness. Everything in the setup of the film and the group of performances makes that pressure plain. The stress is vulgar. Hanks' captain ought to be more elusive. It is a point of his command that he says nothing about his home life. When the crisis comes, and he speaks at last, he is like a parody of Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," digging himself the early grave of absolutely mainstream duty and contentment.

Suppose, instead, if at that moment Hanks' captain had said something like, "Look, at home, I'm a failure. I'm divorced. I had a drinking problem. I can't keep a job. War's the only thing I've ever been good at. So, shall we get on with it?" It seems to me that a whole new context of truth could open up with that, enough to shame the sentimentality away. And that's the crisis that faces Tom Hanks. He's not a kid anymore -- but he keeps a kid's need to be liked, to be popular. Can he stand up and be counted as an ordinary failure? Even in the very uneasy "You've Got Mail," his character virtually abdicates from the tough, businesslike attitudes that have made him.

There are reasons for being hopeful. Hanks himself is very energetic and persevering; I suspect he has it in him to give us a few enchanting scoundrels. I wish he had taken up the earlier challenge and played Richard Nixon (whom he resembles and imitates with high skill). He has also directed a film -- "That Thing You Do!" His character in that movie is a professional debaucher and discarder, though this role too is played ultimately for sentiment. It's hard to know whether that tidy, lively debut promises more.

Again, being Tom Hanks is a full-time job -- nearly presidential -- whereas real actors and artists need intense private lives, as opposed to the nearly constant display of decency and good intentions that have fallen on Spielberg and Hanks. One can easily see how the actor and the director have persuaded themselves into that kind of status. But artists must let that secret and sometimes subversive life grow. In the end, does Hanks see his future as a real actor, a real artist, or as a kind of advertisement for American success and proficiency -- the man in the white, purple and orange suit?

By David Thomson

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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