The “dad movie” is a concept that is at once abstract (you can’t find a “dad movie aisle in your local shop, nor does the Oscars give out awards for them), yet people know what you’re talking about when you mention a “dad movie.”
They usually star Tom Hanks or Russell Crowe, Steven Spielberg or David Lean probably had a hand in making it, they won Oscars, are history-based, or are always on free-to-air television.
In the spirit of Fathers’ Day, Oxygen.ie investigates what exactly constitutes a dad movie, and the mythical quality surrounding it.
When John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this year, he joked that all dads have a prodigious knowledge of World War 2, as if they’re studying for a massive exam that will never happen. The dad movie and the war movie are so intertwined, they might as well be joined at the hip.
War movies have existed as long as movies have existed (the very first Academy Award for Best Picture was given to Wings in 1927, a movie about WWI), so the war movie has always been a presence in the collective lives of our fathers.
In the 50s and 60s, the war film exploded in popularity, with films such as The Longest Day, Bridge Over The River Kwai, Dambusters, Zulu and Stalag 17 being either Oscar or box office hits. It makes sense that these kinds of films endured in the culture for as long as they have; our fathers grew up with them.
In the 2010s, films like Dunkirk, Hacksaw Ridge, American Sniper, and most recently, 1917, which made close to 50 million euro in the UK alone, proved to be hits with audiences and critics alike, young and old.
Statistics show that 25% of males who bought a ticket to see Dunkirk in the United States were 55 years old or older, which indicates that either war movies still have mass appeal, or they really wanted to see if Harry Styles could act.
Another part of the dad movie formula is stars. And if you were to make a Mount Rushmore of dad movie stars, Tom Hanks would easily be one of the faces.
When Hanks was diagnosed with Covid-19 on 11th March, David Sims of The Atlantic wrote, “whether because of sheer star power or the straightforward, fact-based nature of the post, the actor’s words carried more weight and solemnity.”
The Washington Post, writing on Hanks’ diagnosis stated, “on social media, the widespread concern of ‘if he can get it, I can get it’ soon morphed into serious questions about coronavirus preparedness in the United States.”
Hanks is the patron saint of the dad movie, with Saving Private Ryan, Forest Gump, and more recently, Bridge Of Spies and Sully elevating Tom Hanks to the legendary status of Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant – the everyman you can relate to who is great at their job.
A shining example of the Hanks phenomenon is The Green Mile. Based on a Stephen King novel and serving as director Frank Darabont’s follow-up to The Shawshank Redemption, it’s an excessively grim and bleak movie, but it still played like a blockbuster because Hanks was at the centre of it.If the movie starred some other equally talented actor, like Paul Giamatti or Dennis Farina, it’s doubtful to imagine the film connecting in the way it did.
A tip given to screenwriters is to write characters the audience can project themselves onto or see themselves as, and Hanks is the embodiment of that conceit. With a star like Hanks, Crowe, Pacino, Brando, Ford or Crowe at the centre of your movie, they’re there to serve as an avatar for the audience. They look like someone you would meet on the street, but underneath it all, they’re just men who want to get on with their jobs.
History-based movies are a large part of the dad movie canon, but sports movies are another type of movie that play well with dads.
The Great Escape is perhaps the greatest film ever made because it has Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pele and Bobby Moore teaming up to defeat Nazis at football, and is a staple of Christmas television for that reason.
The Rocky franchise are dad favourites too, with this writer’s father often recalling seeing the original in the cinema in 1977, and going out into the alleyway beside the cinema afterwards and punching dustbins in an attempt to emulate Rocky.
Field Of Dreams is also cited as a quintessential dad movie too, with its blend of sanguine fantasy, baseball and Kevin Costner (another candidate for a face on dad movie Rushmore) always guaranteed to draw a crowd of dads whenever it airs on television on a Sunday afternoon.
2019’s Ford Vs Ferrari did decently at the box office and the Oscars, but at time of writing, is being marketed hard as the movie to buy your dad for Father’s Day, along with 1917, and within 10 years those two movies could easily become established as favourites within the dad movie canon.
To wildly paraphrase Field Of Dreams: “If you give them sports and history, they will come.”