Few actors exude such comforting ordinariness as Tom Hanks. This is not an insult. Comparisons to Jimmy Stewart are fitting: There’s something about Hanks which is distinctly his, yet seems to belong to everyone as well. He fuels such remarkable empathy that every movement can draw a burst of recognition from audiences.
That’s key to Cast Away, which is nearly a one-man show. The bulk of its 143 minutes is Hanks alone on a tropical island, improvising survival tactics to keep himself alive even when hope for rescue runs out. Here, audience identification is absolutely crucial, and it’s hard to imagine another American actor who could pull this off as gracefully.
Hanks is best loved when he’s sweet (the man-child in Big), not tart (the acid-tongued comedian in Punchline), and his everyguy charm helped Philadelphia and Saving Private Ryan resonate beyond their core audiences. He also made Forrest Gump work, turning what could have easily been a cruel joke into an innocent’s odyssey through an America losing its innocence and belief in itself as a righteous nation.
Director Robert Zemeckis reached a special-effects milestone with Forrest Gump, taking technology to a new level, using it not to imagine distant unseen worlds, but to reinterpret history. This year, he’s scaled back, with the lame Hitchcock retread of What Lies Beneath, and now the sparse beauty of Cast Away. What the script by William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13) lacks — there’s no poetry in the language, no transcendence when it’s needed — Zemeckis makes up for by focusing squarely on Hanks, and staging the action primarily from his point of view.
Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a Federal Express go-getter, traversing the globe to instill the corporate philosophy to emerging markets. In Russia he barks, “Time rules over us without mercy!” then leads a package sort in Red Square beside a disabled truck. So it’s not surprising when he leaves a Christmas dinner with his large extended family and graduate-student girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), early to hop a plane for a distant assignment.
That plane goes down in the Pacific, and it’s one of the most harrowing crashes put on film, largely because the audience literally perceives it as Hanks does, in all its terrifying capriciousness. Subsequently, every action Hanks takes on the island is an extension of his character’s particular quirks, accentuated by that expressive face which no longer appears to be acting, but able to transmit pure emotion. Hanks even manages to maintain his innate dignity when talking to a volleyball dubbed Wilson.
As an epic, Cast Away lacks the necessary grandeur, even though Zemeckis expertly films the island as a place of exquisite isolation and unending beauty: the ideal vacation spot as Chuck’s personal hell. There’s a sense of pointlessness to the whole affair, even when Chuck finally makes it back home to Memphis (did you doubt that he would?).
Tom Hanks makes the journey worth it, providing in tiny moments a window to Chuck Noland’s hard-won faith in surviving. As he looks at a welcome-home buffet littered with sushi and crab claws (gussied-up versions of his island cuisine) or at the Swiss Army knife he left behind on his key ring, he doesn’t have to say anything. We know.
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