Among actors who are decades past their twentysomething years, Tom Hanks remains a popular and even iconic movie star. Last year, Hanks toplined three mainstream films, each directed by a name filmmaker. None were outstanding. None were Academy Award-worthy. Two were at best nicely done and one was hugely disappointing but, taken together, all three offer thoughtful reflections of our world and our culture in 2016 and the new year.
The first is A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, directed by Tom Tykwer. Here, Hanks plays Alan, an American sales representative who heads off to Saudi Arabia to complete a business deal. Now these days, it seems that whenever a character from the Middle East appears in an American film, that individual is a shady, untrustworthy foreigner at best and a stereotypical terrorist at worst. However, in A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, all the characters with whom Alan mixes are average. And some are likable. These include everyone from a friendly cab driver who escorts Alan to his workplace to a woman doctor whom he gets to know during the course of the story. This, in a word, is refreshing.
Next, there is SULLY, directed by 86-year-old Clint Eastwood. Now we live at a time in which the media obsesses over real-world terrorists and mass murderers. Their names and faces may endlessly appear on the 24/7 news channels. To my disgust, one of them-- the surviving Boston Marathon bomber-- even made the cover of Rolling Stone. Yet how often are heroes singled out? While the bad guys become household names, the good guys quickly fade into history. But one exception is Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, played by Hanks: the pilot who almost a decade ago saved countless lives by landing his disabled US Airways aircraft on the Hudson River.
However, at the core of the film is an attempt by the National Transportation Safety Board to discredit Sully and his copilot, to present them as ham-fisted incompetents rather than genuine American heroes. The point here is that, in our contemporary world, even the good guys, the life-savers, the honest souls, must somehow be flawed and thoughtless. Taking this a bit further: In our world, decent souls who perform heroic deeds-- characters who decades ago might have been played onscreen by an actor of the caliber of a James Stewart-- simply do not exist. Their failings, their capacity for human error, must be stressed, rather than their basic goodness, and this is a cheerless commentary on our oh-so-cynical culture.
Finally, there is the disappointing INFERNO, directed by Ron Howard. Here, Hanks is cast as Harvard professor Robert Langdon: a character he previously played in THE DA VINCI CODE and ANGELS & DEMONS, which like INFERNO are adaptations of Dan Brown novels. And here, Langdon finds himself involved in a plot to halt the worldwide spread of a deadly virus.
INFERNO is yet one more contemporary film that endlessly stresses zippy editing and spiffy imagery over a coherent storyline. As you watch it, you just may ask yourself: What is the point of all these images, other than to toss visual eye-candy at undiscerning viewers? However, in the INFERNO storyline, are the bad guys really the good guys? Are the good guys really villains? It is up to the poor pitiful professor to sort this all out and, ultimately, what you do have here is a portrait of a contemporary world in which paranoia reigns supreme, and no one is to be trusted...
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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