“Extremely Fearful, Incredibly Grieving”: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock

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Finally Hollywood has discovered a good man with the right stuff to play the part of an incredibly loving father who happens to be a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, loves baseball, and who has just a enough of Asperger’s syndrome qualities (a mere scent) to bond closely with his nine-year-old, a boy so riddled with fears that when he sees the swing set in Central Park he immediately sees in his mind an awful swing crash catastrophe. Dad finds unlimited fun ways to engage his intellectually gifted and timid boy, through fantasy trips and excavations of all kind, topped by the search for the Sixth Borough of New York, which floated away from the city one day and never returned.

Little boys who already live with high levels of fear and anxiety—in this case, by temperament and biology (?), as there is a loving marriage between Hanks and Bullock as well as a doting grandmother across the apartment garden who can be contacted at night by flashlight—become especially prone to posttraumatic stress disorder. Hanks dies while at a meeting at the World Trade Center. Now little Oskar’s fears go off the chart, as loud sounds remind him of The Awful Day (he must carry around a tambourine to make noise to distract himself) or wear a gas mask when he rides the subway.

Oskar finds a key in his father’s closet. What will it open? What will he learn about his father? Thus begins an Incredibly Journey of dividing Brooklyn into hundreds of quadrants, searching phone books, and calling and physically contacting hundreds of people with the last name of “Black” to see which one is keeper of the lock to which the lost key fits. It’s an obsessive journey as Oskar must learn to face his fears and go against them, running across bridges that previously terrified him, descending into subway tunnels that days before reminded him of the collapsing towers.

In the book by the same name, Oskar is “autistic.” I’m not sure this term applies to him in the movie as he shows remarkable empathy and ability to relate to other human beings across wide ranges, to touch their lives, and to be touched in return. In the film, it is said that his family had him tested and he did not meet the criteria, causing Papa Oskar to say, “Asperger’s kids are very bright and can’t run a straight line.”

The term autism is tangential to the movie, but note that little Oskar is very fearful, quirky, bogged down and overladen with defenses and habits. And he grieves, so deeply, so immensely.

There’s some initial suspense when an old German man enters the drama. He’s the kind of man without a name, introduced to everyone as “the renter”; and even more mysteriously, or ominously, he doesn’t talk but communicates via a system of words tattooed to his hands. He joins Oskar in many jaunts across the city, eventually sparking some endearing times and a bit of comic relief from all of the 9/11 sadness.

Thomas Horn is the twelve-year-old who plays Oskar. He’s verbally gifted and can put sentences together that carry the rhythm of a piano or orchestra crescendo. (In real life, he was the winner of the national Jeopardy!/“Kids’ Week.”) Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the 1995 book, Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, upon which the screenplay is based. The book was panned by John Updike and others, but I find this film adaptation one to tug at everyone’s heartstrings while in the theater, and to stir thoughtful reflection afterward. I want to see it again.

Sandra Bullock is introduced as a monochromatic, even funereal presence, as her own grief appears to create an un-broachable wall between herself and her son. (It’s reminiscent of a similar role in Premonition, a movie also using many flashbacks.) Oskar says some things to her that he quickly takes back. “I didn’t mean them,” he says. “Yes, Oskar, you did!” In the end, though, it is this one mother’s strength and empathy that carries her son through a terrible period of grieving, which he must, and does, solve in his own manner.

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