*Spoilers for The Midnight Sky
During every awards cycle, there are what I like to call the “A-list” and the “B-list” of awards movies. The A-list award movies are the movies which are most certainly going to get nominated. This year, some of those films will probably include the likes of Nomadland, Minari, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, and others. Then there is the B-list, which are movies that have all the makings of award films and were clearly made with an eye towards awards, but are not going to get any major recognition.
I believe The Midnight Sky and News of the World to be B-list award films. Neither has gotten quite the traction or critical reception they need to be top award contenders and while they may get nominated in smaller categories, I don’t see either as having a chance as top contenders. This is not to say they aren’t good, they’re just not quite as good as they think they are.
Along with being both B-list award films, they also have something else in common which I’d like to explore a little deeper. Both films feature older men who are accompanied on a journey by a young girl, who is either completely mute or speaks very little (or speaks a different language). This setup has become a trope, and one I think has fascinating implications. We’ll flesh that out further, but for now, let’s look at each film individually.
The Midnight Sky was released on Netflix in December. It is directed by and stars George Clooney, who plays Augustine, the last man on Earth. Augustine is trying to make contact with a group of astronauts on their way home who have no idea of the catastrophe that has wiped out civilization. Augustine discovers a mute young girl (Caoilinn Springall) to be left on Earth with him, and she joins him on the journey to warn the astronauts.
The Midnight Sky looks beautiful, and Netflix obviously spared no expense in making it compete with the technical achievements of other recent space films, of which there have been many (Gravity, First Man, The Martian, Interstellar…). The setup of the film is intriguing as well, and there are a couple of exciting setpieces with Clooney and Springall fighting against the arctic wilderness. However, The Midnight Sky promises a meditation on grief and loneliness which never really lands. There are too many characters and none of them get their due, and there is too much vagueness about the catastrophes of Earth to feel real or unnerving. The cinematography is the most beautiful and interesting thing about it.
Meanwhile, News of the World reunites director Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks after they worked together on Captain Phillips. Here, Hanks plays another captain, Captain Kidd, a man who makes his living going from town to town reading newspapers. When he comes across an orphaned young girl (Helena Zengel), he decides to take her on an arduous journey to get her to her relatives. The use of the immediate post-Civil War setting and its atmosphere of paranoia and distrust, along with the film’s emphasis on stories and the role of journalism (which brings to mind Hank’s role in 2017’s The Post) make News of the World feel timely without being too preachy (save for a few scenes). However, the relationship between Kidd and the kid is clearly the film’s emotional core, and most of that comes from Hanks. The screenplay does very little to establish why Kidd makes the sacrifices he does for the girl. Instead, the film relies on Hank’s casting. Why does Kidd drop everything to go on this journey for the girl’s sake? Because he’s Tom Hanks! Do you think Tom Hanks is going to let anything happen to a child? No! Because he’s Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks always does the right thing, and that is that. From this foundation, Hanks and Zengel are able to build a more fleshed out, interesting relationship which carries the film.
Both films are fine, with News of the World edging out as the better one. Yet what I find interesting is how they embody this emerging trope of a gruff older man + near-silent young girl. I first noticed this dynamic in 2017’s Logan, with Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine and Dafne Keen as Laura/X23, but other examples can be seen in War For the Planet of the Apes, Eleven in Stranger Things, Boo from Monsters Inc, along with many other variations. Vulture, upon the release of Logan, published an article about this phenomenon (with a focus on violent little girl characters), which includes the key observation that the girls in these roles “[exist] to be observed as an object of contemplation.” No matter how much agency she has in the story, her presence is something that causes the leading man to reflect upon himself, usually about his failings as a father, or what could have been. This is most explicit in The Midnight Sky, where it is revealed the little girl is not even real, but is George Clooney’s character imagining his daughter, who is actually Felicity Jones’s astronaut character.
Now I am actually quite fond of this trope, and it’s easy to see its appeal. What is the similarity between the apocalypse of The Midnight Sky and the wild frontier of News of the World, or the world of the X-Men, or a science-fiction dystopia? Parenthood! Men embracing their paternal instinct! Drama is created through differences and contrasts, and since an older man and a young girl are seen as opposites, characters with this dynamic automatically have great cinematic potential.
Yet, while emotionally this is an engaging trope, it comes at a cost. It is great to see these movies and genres- science fiction, western, superhero, etc.- that have traditionally been unwelcoming to women, now include them and allow young girls to see themselves in the picture through this trope. But the silence of these young girls, and how they rarely have personalities beyond being objects of observation, means they are not really characters. They could be replaced with a dog the male characters loves, and nothing would change. I wonder what it would be like to replace many of these little girls with grown women who come alongside the protagonist and join them as equals (maybe even without an obligatory romance!). Or, at least, if these young girls are allowed to speak, and take action in these stories.
Consider that there is no equivalent trope for young boy characters. You don’t see many movies where older women are taking young boys under their wing. Firstly, because older women don’t exist in film. Secondly, if a young boy is in a film, they’re usually going on their own adventure. They’re not there as prompts for other characters to discover more about themselves. These boys are active agents of their own adventure. They are being prepped to be the next Tom Hanks or George Clooney, and maybe one day will be old enough to have their own silent surrogate daughter.
– Madeleine D