By Kathy Berken
I love Tom Hanks. He improves with each succeeding role, playing characters who show us how to be better people, better Christians.
In his 2015 film “Bridge of Spies,” Hanks played real-life attorney James Donovan who during the Cold War defended captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Hated even for taking this thankless job, Donovan persists in his mission to give the man at least a fair trial. Riding against public outrage, he convinced the judge to spare the Soviet’s life. I could sense Donovan’s inner tension between wanting to find Abel guilty and showing mercy. The key to his argument was that the United States might be able to use him as a pawn somewhere down the road.
As it turned out, a few years after Abel was imprisoned, the Soviets captured U.S. spy Lt. Gary Powers and Donovan arranged a swap. Redemption was his.
In his current film “Sully,” Hanks portrays flight Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who made an emergency landing in the Hudson River on a frigid January day in 2009. Sullenberger managed to save all 155 of his passengers and crew by making the right decisions at the right times. Level-headed and calm, he guided the crippled plane into the river, knowing however, that such a landing could be fatal.
After a thorough 18-month investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that he made the correct decisions, giving Sullenbereger permanent national hero status.
What do Tom Hanks and his two movie characters have to do with seeing so well?
In a recent television interview, Hanks admitted that he takes good-guy roles because, well, that’s just who he is. Producers and directors see that in him, and he uses what he already sees in himself to make those characters become real on the screen. He sees the goodness that others also see, which translates to positive messages for his audience.
This reminds me of the Gospel story about the poor man Lazarus who sat outside the rich man’s gate, seen only as a beggar. Even after both men died, the rich man in hell saw Lazarus in heaven only as a servant who might cool his burning tongue. The rich man continued to see himself not as one of the good guys, but entitled and blind to Lazarus’ nature as a child of God.
Tom Hanks and his characters, Donovan and Sullenberger, are not blind. They see beyond the obvious. Hanks’ sight and insight are strengths that elicit goodness in the characters he portrays. Donovan saw Comrade Abel as a man who was “just doing his job,” who was not very different from the spies the U.S. employs, but deeper was Donovan’s sense of justice and of mercy for a fellow human being.
Sullenberger likewise saw himself as a good person whose 40-year career was more than just flying an airplane. He believed every person on every plane he piloted was his personal responsibility to keep safe. That kind of seeing gave him the ability and strength to land a disabled plane in the icy Hudson River that day and save the lives of all on board.
We are inherently good people who want to do what’s right, good, just and merciful. It was not necessarily the rich man’s wealth that caused his blindness, nor was it simply Donovan’s job as an attorney, nor Sullenberger’s role as an airplane pilot that caused them to see beyond themselves. Greed and selfishness can cause blindness, and compassion can cause 20-20 vision.
If we want to know where our blind spots are, we can be sure that if we ask our most trusted friends or relatives, “What am I not seeing?” they will be happy to fill us in.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)