In Finch, the excellent new movie on Apple TV, Tom Hanks lives alone on a bleak ruined earth.
I take this as a bad sign for us all.
Tom Hanks is the archetype of American baby boomer masculinity and he plays characters that represent the highest ideals of American masculinity. These archetypes include the innovative scientist and explorer who comes home at all costs, the man who solves hard problems, who is tough on the battlefield and saves his friends, but stays soft for the girl. He’s a man who fights evil in all its forms, and exhibits courage under pressure. He’s a savvy businessman or detective, setting things right, helping the little guy win. He’s kind. He’s a hopeless romantic.
Tom Hanks has played characters who are all these things and more. He survived Apollo 13 and reminded us that we went to the moon, “not because it was easy, but because it was hard.” He survived Vietnam and the 60s, and stayed true to his high school sweetheart while taking over the world with shrimp in Forrest Gump. If every man is indeed an island, Tom Hanks proved it by showing us that he could survive being deserted on one in Castaway. He survived a hijacking by Somali pirates in Captain Phillips and showed us that the terrorists wouldn’t win. He played Sully Sullenberger, the hero who landed a plane on the Hudson River, in Sully. He coached a woman’s baseball team in A League of Their Own, managed a 60s rock band in That Thing You Do, and caught one of the worst young con men his generation ever knew in Catch Me If You Can. He was Sleepless in Seattle, and introduced us to new ways to woo in You’ve Got Mail. Pardon my French, but shit, he was Mr. Rogers himself in Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
When Ton Hanks got COVID, the pandemic got real. If the archetypal American dad could get COVID, none of our dads were safe. And when Tom Hanks got better, I think we all felt hopeful relief.
On the one hand, I’m a big fan of Tom Hanks, and on the other hand, my psychic relationship with him goes deeper than that. He stands in for my dad in many films. My dad also went to the Vietnam war, saved his friends, got a Purple Heart. On family vacations my dad led our hikes like Chuck Noland in Castaway, making do with what he had, finding ways to get us un-lost. My father may not have landed a plane, or steered the re-entry module in space, but he fixed our broken fan belt when the car broke down in the New Mexico desert and he got my van started when it overheated on the side of a Miami freeway when I was a teenager. And while my mom wasn’t his high school sweetheart, he’s stayed true to her for 36 years.
And so when Tom Hanks plays a new character or stars in a new film, I pay attention, because I wonder on one hand, what version of my Dad he’s going to be this year, and also what ideal of American masculinity he’ll represent this time around. In Tom Hanks’s most recent film, Finch, released on Apple TV just days ago, Hanks plays Finch, an engineer stranded in a post-apocalyptic world, with a dog for his only living companion. He also has robot friends. A little Mars rover that serves as the living dog’s robot foil, and Jeffrey, a humanoid robot Finch creates himself, that serves as Finch’s human foil. The story isn’t a happy one, and it would spoil too much to give away who dies and who lives, but I’ll say this much: the narrative is a perfect foil to every tragic dog film ever created.
To say the movie is well done is an understatement. We don’t learn right away what happened to the planet, but we’re given subtle clues, brilliantly delivered. Finch sleeps and works surrounded by books about the consequences of solar flares and the dangers of ionizing radiation. Jeffrey emerges as an intelligent but child-like robot, ever-ready to please. Hanks is the hero, but he’s the hero of a world emptied of people, a world where no one can be trusted, a world without flowers, without sunshine, without natural beauty. His only goal is to get to the Golden Gate bridge where he can hear the cables sing and maybe find some of the remaining canned food that hasn’t been ransacked by marauding cannibals.
And so, we have Finch After Apollo 13 and Forest Gump and Castaway, this is how American men will spend their golden years. Not as astronauts looking back on their triumph of having touched the moon, nor as the good-guy businessman that made a living from something small, like shrimp, nor as a man who has found his own island, but this, a man growing old, driving a recreational vehicle around a ruined planet.
This is the future to which the boomers have to look forward as they retire and grow older.
The same men that dreamed themselves to the moon, saved their friends on the battlefield or protested unjust wars. The same men who transformed the culture with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, now find themselves alone on a dying planet, with no heirs but their robots. Their children will inherit fields of dust, a planet too hot for their skin, a climate racked by tornadoes and extreme weather events.
Like so many baby boomers, Finch is reduced to driving around an overheated America in a recreational vehicle.
Spend any summer in the American west, and you too can see it. The line of gas guzzling recreational vehicles driven by senior citizens, lining the roads of America’s national parks like a swollen rosary.
In a world without people, the people have no purpose, but the robots have no real purpose either. Jeffrey is an advanced humanoid robot that can rattle off several thousand facts about every new object he encounters, but he’s basically a glorified can opener.
After all, Finch has designed Jeffrey to take care of his dog after he passes away.
The Tin Man may have only wanted to have a heart in the Wizard of Oz, but Jeffrey doesn’t even know what his heart is for. At the end of the movie, he learns that the place where is heart should be is a can opener.
It is not accidental that the humanoid robot’s name is Jeffrey. Jeff is Tom Hanks’s middle name.
Will Finch ever make it to the Golden Gate Bridge? Does it even matter? Will Jeffrey have what it takes to take care of his dog when he dies? Does that matter? Near the end of the film, Finch hits a butterfly with his mobile home, and finds a patch of sky where the ozone hasn’t been turned to swiss cheese. He sits in a white Ernest Hemmingway suit, drinking his Jameson, playing fetch with his dog, staring at the one and only flower growing in the desert.
I won’t give away the movie’s end. I’ll only say this. It had me weeping so hard by the end of it that no number of tissues could clean the snot off my face.
What died at the end of the film wasn’t any single character, but a whole generation of American men who find themselves in their golden years, wondering what world they might be leaving behind. What died at the end of the film was the world my dad fought for, sacrificed for. There is hope, but unless we change our ways and change them fast, that hope is fleeting.
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.
She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.