When the film Keeping the Faith came out this summer it was quite pleasing and slightly shocking to see movie characters working to ease the tension between religious practice and daily activity. The dilemmas in Keeping the Faith testify to the limits of one's profession to make one truly content with one's life. By wondering whether one's profession—even if it is a helping profession—can satisfy all human needs, it asks a radical question for an American movie. I remember thinking as I watched the film that the presence of such a question perhaps signals a shift in the direction of American spiritual energies. Could it be, I wondered, as Jenna Elfman agonized over her choices of the last ten years, that we are waking to the fact that our faith in The New Economy gives us no comfort? Cast Away, the most recent film by Robert Zemeckis, is equally concerned about the disparity between what our souls need and what we feed them daily. But where Keeping the Faith is patient with its characters, pushing them gently toward an agreement with fate, Cast Away seeks to punish the sins of the last ten years. It despises the things for which its protagonist labors: time, efficiency, economy—those things that we who look to the Nasdaq for protection monitor in our prayer books, the Franklin Planner and the Day Timer—and demands from him a strict and brutal penance for worshipping his work. It asks him to cast away the cell phone and the pager that were his rosary and his call to prayer, and asks him to redeem himself.
Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is the perfect Corporate Employee, dedicated to his work even to the point of leaving his family on Christmas Eve to solve a problem in another hemisphere. He has certainly digested everything he learned about efficiency in business school, and he makes speeches about the value of time to his minions. When we first see him he's preaching to the unconverted in a Russian Federal Express processing plant, and it becomes clear that he is a devotee of the order of Time and Efficiency and that these are the source of his power and meaning he derives from life. This philosophy has crippled him emotionally. His friend's wife has cancer, which may have metastasized, and Chuck says things to him like "Let's get this thing fixed." Chuck is obviously a resourceful guy; he's a fixer and a doer and his patience for reflection is certainly limited. Bodies are machines to him, and illness is a bug in the software that he can bring in experts to troubleshoot. Chuck is a man of great convictions in a fractured world. We want to see him suffer.
But when Chuck's plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean that Christmas Eve, the solid corporate rock on which he has build his faith disintegrates. Bits of his old world come back to him on the waves, packaged neatly for overnight delivery in Federal Express boxes, signs of a fragmented existence. Suddenly FedEx means nothing; its language has suddenly become babble. Chuck sorts the boxes according to codes inscribed on their labels, but we laugh at him while he does it. His actions are absurd, for we know that by doing this he is praying to a god who cannot understand him. The boxes may be positioned to go on to their final destinations, but there is not going to be a guy in shorts with an electronic clipboard dropping by at four pm to pick them up. The situation has literally deconstructed his life. The film has given him beliefs, then put him in a place in which they do not apply.
This film is interested in the impermanence of systems. We get this sense of rebuilt meanings in the Russia scenes when we watch Chuck and his crew sort packages in the shadow of the Kremlin. There is a shot of him on his cell phone, with St. Basil's in the background, and we recognize how each era has attached its own meaning to those onion domes. Beneath this Federal Express commercial we see traces of the Cold War, and beneath that the Czars and Orthodoxy. In context with the rest of the film the shot becomes a palimpsest through which we witness the Russian Empire, the communists, and the advent of capitalism. The contents of the packages that wash up on the shore of Chuck's island are as anachronistic as the FedEx sorting systems, the czars, and Lenin. What is a man stranded alone on an island to do with a volley-ball, a party dress, someone's divorce papers, video tapes and ice skates? These things look like museum pieces there on the sand, the last proof of a dead civilization. But Chuck searches for a way to make them meaningful. He disassembles them and makes them into a fishing net, a dental instrument, and axe among other things.
This fragmentation, underscored by these things that hold meaning only temporarily, produces profound isolation. The film is full of messages, packages that are sent and never received and stories that never conclude themselves. The phone call that Chuck makes from the Kremlin reaches an answering machine, and we hear Chuck's voice explode with joy as we watch a shot of the empty room in which his voice echoes. These interruptions trigger unanswerable questions: What is in the box that he gives his girlfriend before he leaves on Christmas Eve? Is it an engagement ring? A watch? A tulip bulb? A small Wedgwood vase? What leads her to abandon her hopes for a place in academe and marry a dentist? Who is expecting those divorce papers? What is in the box that he guards unopened throughout his four years on the island? In a world where relationships between people are lasting, messages might get through. But relationships in this film are as faulty as the communication. The Beloved isn't home. The FedEx plane crashes, scattering its contents. Casual links in your network of relationships demonstrate how absurd the course of events can really be. Imagine that you return from the dead after four years to find that your girlfriend has married the man who once gave you a root canal. And he's not even your regular dentist, with whom you might have developed one of those cordial, every-six-months-do-you-floss-every-day relationships; you were just another referral.
In defiance of such absurdity, Chuck paints a face on the volleyball and it becomes an icon— his representation of faith. Chuck makes it in his image—his handprint inscribed in his own blood, decorated with an ironic smirk. He speaks to it, he carries it with him all over the island, and it serves as his silent counsel. He calls it "Wilson." He talks to Wilson as an intimate. He bickers with Wilson; he yells at Wilson; he defies Wilson; he tosses Wilson out of the cave and then he runs around the island, screaming hysterically trying to find him. He secures it to his raft when he escapes the island. There is a "My God, why have you forsaken me" moment, when Wilson becomes separated from the raft and floats too far out to be rescued. Chuck has lost his faith, and in a visual homage to Ben Hur, he lies on his raft, sobbing at the hopelessness of his situation. But if Wilson is a symbol of Chuck's new faith, it is also a representative of the Divine, sent to accompany Chuck in his time in Purgatory. He is no longer needed now that Chuck has purged his sins, and he is replaced with a messenger who can lead Chuck home. We know from the story of Jonah that if God has a plan for us and we disagree with him, he will not leave us but he will conjure a sea monster to deliver us to our intended place. For Chuck there is a whale that turns out to be his guide and protector.
The film's references are not only Biblical, they are Romantic, as well. When Chuck attempts to make fire, he's not Early Human trying to keep warm, but Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods. For fifteen minutes we watch him labor, we watch him think, we watch him give up and begin to pick at the meat of a coconut in frustration like a writer, blocked, tortured by the everlasting patience of the curser, who wanders off to the fridge for inspiration. And when he does find inspiration in the covering of the coconut, we see something in Chuck's eyes that is not primal, not animal, but godlike. He creates fire and he celebrates. "I have made fire!" he cries at Wilson, who can only stare back at him in silence, powerless to conjure the elements. Chuck's cry is at once triumphant and rebellious. He is the creative force on the island, not the ineffective Wilson, whom he created—a product of his anger at not being able to easily make fire.
When Chuck and the whale gaze at each other and the whale leaves him alone, you know Chuck will survive. Nature in "Cast Away" functions at the behest of the Divine, and it is transformative and transcendent. We need no further proof of this magic than the image of Chuck's sinewy, emaciated body after four years on the island. The film hides it from us at first, keeping Chuck behind a large rock and asking him to emerge slowly for the full effect. You hardly recognize him. The years on the island have leaned and hardened this formerly plump lover of candied yams and marshmallows, and though we know that his survival relies on his ability to adapt to the island's rhythms and dangers, his frailty makes him vulnerable. We wonder about his sanity. He tries to attack a piece of siding that washes up on the beach outside his cave. Still obsessed with time, Chuck has observed the track that sunlight makes across the wall of his cave and has made a calendar according to it. As he plans his escape from the island he deduces the best time to try by his observation of the direction of the winds and his knowledge of the tides. We glimpse shades of his former self when he tells Wilson that he is in a race against time, but even this core aspect of his self has mellowed. At FedEx he raced against minutes, he complained that four days was too long for a package to travel from Memphis to Moscow. Now he has months prepare, and instead of making a taskmaster out of an arbitrary measurement of time—the clock—he finds constants in the forces of nature. When we see him excitedly calculating the time he has left to prepare before the tide is advantageous, and watch the look on his face as he determined that the wind now blows in his favor, we see that he has surrendered to forces greater than himself. It is a relief, because we know then that his penance is over. He has re-made his life according to nature and the divine; he has, like Dante, in the middle of his life, a man in exile (we cannot overlook the allegorical significance of "Noland"), journeyed through Purgatory.
We might think that a film so disturbed by our postmodern lack of adherence to absolute truth and our inability to connect or even communicate with other human beings might look for a way to heal our corporate pain. This is a story about a messenger who has demonstrated a singular devotion to making sure messages get through, after all. But Cast Away takes its theology directly from its sense of disconnection, which leads to isolation, portraying Chuck's relationship with God as one that is deeply personal and individual. Chuck is not a Christ figure descending into hell to minister to the prisoners like the Tim Robbins character in Shawshank Redemption; nor does he suffer for the sins of those of us enchanted by the promises of the New Gilded Age. Rather, the island is his personal cross to bear, and he bears it for himself uniquely. An image like the one in The Mission of Robert DiNero dragging his armor behind him, exorcising his sins so he can lead a life of ministry to others would be out of place in Chuck's story. Chuck has no real responsibility to humankind. Chuck drags his armor behind him so he can become a better version of himself, sadder and wiser, but completely transformed. Chuck is on a personal quest. He begins and ends the film alone. He is the Ancient Mariner's brother, and as if to drive home the similarities between the two characters Chuck wears his broken timepiece around his neck when he takes to sea. His slavish devotion to time is his albatross, the cause of his suffering, and the reason for his penance.
The idea of penance as a necessary route to forgiveness is an idea akin more to Catholicism than it is to the American Protestant tradition that so informs this idea of the individual. But, as it has been suggested, in America, even the Catholics are Protestant, and though the film requires Chuck to purge his sins, it speaks more to an American Protestant understanding of the human relationship with God than any other idea. The image of the individual sinner "born again" into a personal relationship with God manifests itself in the public life of the country through an understanding of the community as being subservient to the individual. President Kennedy, famous for being the only Catholic to hold that position, reversed this idea in his inaugural address, urging Americans to do what we can for our country. In recent years we have heard political rhetoric that avails itself of a sort of double speak, accusing the poor and disadvantaged of draining the life-blood from the country while the wealthy and advantaged work tirelessly to legislate against corporate (and Corporate—as in business) responsibility. This understanding extends to our private lives in that one's responsibility to others ends when one is "saved." I recently drove behind a car on which its owner had posted a sticker that said, "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven." It was a reminder that we can sin boldly, yes, but at the same time this two-phrase creed absolved Christians everywhere of temporal responsibilities. I may run you over with this car, it was saying, you might be harmed and I might not carry liability insurance (God is my co-pilot!)— but it doesn't matter to me—I am assured of my reward. This is the essence of the relationship between humans and God to which this film asks us to subscribe. It is an unabashedly secular spirituality. It allows us to keep religion out of our conversation as well as our civic participation. And when some of us do speak about it in public, we see no contradiction between our avowed belief and, say, allowing capital punishment to continue.
This same theology of the individual absolves the business world of its contribution to Chuck's sins. Cast Away is one big commercial for Federal Express; a connoisseur of product placement in films, I have never seen more egregious campaigning for one company in a film than I witnessed in this one. Even off the island Chuck is alone in the world. The family that he leaves on Christmas Eve is his girlfriend's not his own. When he returns to his hometown he flies a FedEx plane, and FedEx celebrates his homecoming by welcoming him back into the "family." Meanwhile, the girlfriend's family is conspicuous by its absence. She herself has begun to raise her own family in the time she has been without Chuck. It is as if Odysseus arrived home to discover that one night three years ago Penelope got tired of undoing her weaving and agreed to run away to Athens with one of the suitors. By comparison, FedEx puts him up in a hotel and throws him a party. At this point it might be good to question how FedEx must have encouraged Chuck to worship as he did in his life before the island. It might also be instructive to compare the film with the reality of waning loyalty of corporations to their employees.
Nothing in Tom Hanks's oeuvre could have prepared us for the performance he gives in Cast Away. His first work in films was in comedies like "Volunteers" and "Joe Versus the Volcano" and he seems to be holding back in his dramatic work. His Oscar speeches and his choice of conventional roles have made me wonder if he is capable of deep introspection or if he buys into the cliches he enacts, but after Cast Away I wonder if the roles themselves were holding him back. Over and over again we see bits of the old comic actor explode from the hearts of his serious characters. In A League of Their Own, he plays a supporting role as a former professional baseball star. His knee is shot and he's an alcoholic. He is a man struggling with what his body is now and what it used to be, but all of the elements of the film, from the script to the direction conspire to make his body the object of laughter. It makes you think back to his days on TV as the cross-dressing Kip in Bosom Buddies, struggling with the shoulder strap on his evening gown all the while desperately in love with the girl who lives down the hall.
Saving Private Ryan probably gave Hanks his first real opportunity to explore his darker emotions, but it is another case of the film holding him back. Ryan so desperately wanted to be reverent, emotional, and meaningful that it allowed its character only token frailties. Hanks's hand shakes throughout the film—a clear indication that he's suffering from a bad case of shell shock—but his mind is intact, and his command ability is never impaired. It is a film by Steven Spielberg, and Spielberg is the Norman Rockwell of moving pictures. So in Private Ryan Hanks must conform to Spielberg's idea of a hero of the Second World War: a leader before whose headstone a man can collapse in tears in front of God and everybody. He acts like a father to the men in his command, and when he reminisces about his life before the war he delivers a deeply nostalgic speech about coaching the high school baseball team in his town in Pennsylvania. It is the first personal glimpse of himself that he has given his men and it is real and they and we believe it despite the thick and wide wall of privacy he has built for himself. I remember seeing the movie and thinking, wouldn't it have been wonderful if there were something shady about this guy? It would be great if he were really a salesman from Oregon trying to get the younger men to buy his performance. Wouldn't it have been wonderful if there were a tremor in his mind to match the one in his hand? But he is clean, untouchable, honest, a man of character of a kind which William Bennett might invite over for dinner. When, dying, he tells the youthful, fortunate Ryan whom he and his men have protected to "earn this" he says it with regret, but earnestly, sincerely, not with the delicious jealousy a dying man might feel toward a living one.
As Chuck in Cast Away, Hanks gets to dredge up those desperate thoughts and feelings he has never been allowed and present them to us with a set of gestures and expressions we have never seen from him. I remember him vividly from his early comedies—the cocked eyebrows, the wide eyes, the melodramatic contortions of the mouth and lips. Bachelor Party was on television a few nights ago and as I studied him I was intrigued by the way he fearlessly and stupidly propelled himself around the set. As I reviewed his work for this piece I began to see a struggle between mind and body emerging as a theme. He plays men who are often limited by their own bodies or are at war with themselves and their situations and are too stubborn to surrender to circumstances. These gestures and contortions have mellowed for Cast Away, and the only hint you see of the comedian are in the scenes where he first lands on the island, one wet sock on his foot, dragging sadly in the sand and in the scene after he first makes fire, both of which are not funny at all. Instead, Hanks makes prodigious use of his inner voice to make hints of emotions cross his face. He isn't aggressive in Cast Away, he lets his feelings and inspirations come to him, like a man alone on an island might, who is excited to find something wash up on his beach. This is, in part, because he has relatively few lines to deliver, but his acting before this now seems more than ever to have been about delivering lines. His Forrest Gump was all about the delivery. His character in Volunteers was about the patrician accent punctuated by the amused, "Look at where this Maine Boy is" eyebrows. But in Cast Away, stripped of this need to make every utterance meaningful, he seems to have discovered that he can trust silence.
Robert Zemeckis is the man responsible for Forrest Gump, which will put him against the wall next to George Lucas when the revolution comes. I was looking for a sort of Patty Hearst-inspired apology for Gump in this movie, an "I'm sorry, I was brainwashed for a time there— a hostage from the Reagan 80s —hadn't been deprogrammed yet." Alas, Cast Away is exactly the kind of movie with which a director might follow up something like Forrest Gump. Both films are deeply committed to the idea of the individual as a powerful spiritual force, whether on an epic or a personal scale. This belief in the individual, however personally inspirational, is Cast Away's fatal flaw, for it is not a balm to soothe our culture's troubled spirit. However, there is an irony and knowingness to this film that its predecessor avoids. There is also a grown-up feeling to this film. We can walk away from it knowing that it wanted to understand the human condition in the 21st century rather than erase humanity's abuses. But there is also something hopeful about it. The final image of Chuck at the crossroads is a powerful one: we have everywhere and nowhere to go.