By John H. Foote

(****) Streaming on Apple

Tom Hanks has twice won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his superb work in Philadelphia (1993) and a year later in Forrest Gump (1994), an unforgettable performance. He has been nominated for the Oscar another four times. He should have won a third for his stunning performance in Cast Away (2000), but I think the Academy had decided enough was enough. Think of the range he has displayed throughout the years: the man-child in Big (1988); the drunken baseball coach of an all-female team In A League of Their Own (1992) (making famous the phrase, “There’s no crying in baseball!”); a heartbreaking AIDS victim in Philadelphia; bouncing through life like a feather in the wind in Forrest Gump; stalwart James Lovell facing death in space in Apollo 13 (1995); the quiet Captain tired of sending young men to their death in Saving Private Ryan (1998); Fed Ex supervisor Chuck, obsessed with time in Cast Away; the gangster hit man in Road to Perdition (2002); an FBI agent in Catch Me if You Can (2002); the incredible Chaplin-esque work he did in The Terminal (2004); the magnificent group of characters he portrayed in the masterpiece cloud Atlas (2011); Captain Phillips (2013), in which the final scene in the medical until is the single most defining portrayal of shock ever seen, Bridge of Spies (2015), as a decent lawyer defending a man charged with treason; as Ben Bradlee in The Post (2017), his glorious Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) and in the best performance I saw last year, his role in News of the World (2020).

And these are only his award-worthy work, not the mainstream hits for which he is loved. Over the last 35 years, he has become one of the most astounding talents working in film. It is inconceivable to me, but Hanks went nearly two decades without an Oscar nomination for any performance he gave in the years spanning 2001-2018. In that time, I count at least six performances he deserved to be nominated for, the best of them his extraordinary work in Captain Phillips and News of the World.

I hope Finch gets the attention it deserves from moviegoers, streamers and that ever-fickle Academy because once again, Hanks delivers a superb performance in a fine film that provides many surprises. A clever merging of Silent Running (1971) with Cast Away, this film is profoundly melancholy, though incredibly hopeful at the same time. Solar flares have decimated the earth and most of its population; we see the remnants of the cities and the intense destruction brought on by the flares. We encounter Finch, a brilliant scientist, as he forages through the stores of a St. Louis neighbourhood, looking for anything he can find to make his survival easier. He absent-mindedly sings American Pie, Don McLean’s mournful song about the evolution of rock and roll. His joy at finding a can of dog food throws us a curve because we think it is for him to consume. We soon learn it is for his dog, his only companion other than a robot that follows him around.

Finch is building a robot back in his lab for a very special purpose–to look after his beloved dog when he dies. He knows his death is not far off; radiation poisoning has already caused internal bleeding, so he knows better than anyone he does not have long. He downloads an array of information about the human race and its history into the robot. The robot will know everything he knows, but it will have the mind of a child. Indeed, when it is made operational, it is like an innocent child, a genius child, but a child just the same. Finch is delighted that his experiment has worked, and the robot named Jeff is working like a dream.

As a devastating storm approaches St. Louis, Finch packs up his tank-like van, and they make their way to the mountains, foraging when they can. As they move day by day, Finch’s condition worsens. He knows once they arrive over the mountains, they will have to deal with temperatures of 150°C, the kind of heat that melts the skin from the bones. Finch, being a brilliant man, has little faith that he will find any surviving civilization. Regardless, he is hopeful for his dog, and he passes that tender hope on to Jeff who absorbs it, learning all he can about human behaviour from Finch.

The film is a gentle, lovely fable about the role hope can play in our survival. Tom Hanks is superb as Finch, but by now, do we expect any less? He is so consistently brilliant that I suspect the Academy and critics just take his genius for granted. Here, as in so many of his other roles, Hanks portrays wounded decency better than anyone else in the business. He is nothing short of superb.

The revelation in the film was Caleb Landry Jones as Jeff, a motion-capture performance that is the finest I have seen since the creation of Andy Serkis’ Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2016). Jones brings a miraculous voice talent to the character, but so much more in the sparse facial expressions, especially with those bizarre moving eyes. Once again here is an argument for a new category I would call the Andy Serkis Award for Best Motion Capture Performance.

Beautifully directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who places enormous trust in his actors. The film does not need the standard science fiction narrative—no hostile aliens, no zombies, vampires, nothing supernatural. The enemy here is time and the elements that lash the earth.

A brilliant film, one of the year’s 10 best and most surprising.

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