Moviegoers are familiar with genres like romantic comedies, thrillers and horror flicks. But then you get into those weird sub-genres that are harder to define yet easy to spot. One of those is the Dad Movie. What exactly is it? The Ringer spent several thousand words last year trying to get to the essence of the Dad Movie, but like with its cousin dad rock, the moniker provides the biggest clue: It’s something that dads are predisposed to love, sometimes to the bewilderment of the rest of us.
The most recent example of a Dad Movie is News of the World, which opens in theaters over Christmas. Directed by Paul Greengrass and set a few years after the Civil War, it stars Tom Hanks as Captain Kidd, who makes his living in the Old West going town to town reading the news. Eventually, he meets a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel), who has been raised by Native Americans but is being forced to live with her faraway aunt and uncle. With no one else able to do the job, Kidd reluctantly serves as her escort as they encounter dangerous storms and even more frightening frontiersmen. Once you watch the trailer, your immediate reaction will be, “Oh, this is such a Dad Movie.”
So, what makes a Dad Movie a Dad Movie? What are its core components? And what do these movies tell us about our opinions of dads? Having seen News of the World, I’ve isolated five important qualities that give it that special dad-ness. These aren’t the only ingredients that can go into a Dad Movie, but they’re a good place to start.
1) Your movie has Tom Hanks in it.
The two-time Oscar-winner, who turned 64 this summer, has been a beloved Hollywood institution for quite a while. But when did he make the transition into being a star that dads particularly love? His first major role as a dad was in 2002’s Road to Perdition, where he played a soulful hitman protecting his boy, but as he’s gotten older, it was inevitable that he’d take on characters who are older and more reflective. (The zany Hanks of Splash or even Big is long gone.)
In recent years especially, he’s gravitated to patriarchal figures in Bridge of Spies, Sully, The Post and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — solid men who you can rely on to get the job done — and earlier in 2020, he was the star of Greyhound, a World War II movie in which he’s the sturdy captain leading his men through a harrowing naval battle. Hanks projects a wizened gravitas that’s awfully appealing — he’s like the ideal dad — and the same is true in News of the World, where he’s a widowed soldier in the 19th century. The world is confusing and scary, but there’s something incredibly comforting and reliable about Hanks’ on-screen presence. The stereotypical dad doesn’t want a lot of fuss, and Hanks is the king of unpretentious quality entertainment. He’s the kind of guy your dad would love to have a beer with.
2) Your movie is a Western.
This rule could almost be called “The Kevin Costner Principle” since he has demonstrated of late that Westerns are a viable genre for older actors courting older viewers. Costner’s hit series Yellowstone is kinda-sorta a Western — it’s set in Montana, and people wear cowboy hats — and his films Let Him Go and The Highwaymen have elements of the Western to them. (Let’s be honest: Kevin Costner, like Hanks, is adored by dads.)
News of the World is even more of a Western than Costner’s recent work, featuring all the trappings you’d expect from the genre, including cowboy hats, rifles, men on horseback and a tension between the white characters and their Native American cohorts. Even when a film like this one tries to investigate the sexism and racism of its era — bringing a contemporary resonance to the proceedings — there remains something soothingly old-fashioned and conservative about the storytelling. Basically, a Western is like a good hamburger from your favorite restaurant: It’s predictably, reliably what you want, every single time. These movies deliver a rugged, tough-guy filmmaking style that’s easy to identify. It’s almost guaranteed not to have a lot of fancy special effects. And there’s an element of history to a Western that makes it feel unthreatening. (It’s not like those MCU movies where you have to know a whole bunch of confusing backstory that’s all made up.)
Plus, Westerns appeal to the weathered masculinity of their target audience. A film like News of the World is such a Dad Movie because it reminds us of our own fathers, who are often the first examples of undeniable manhood we meet in the world. Westerns feel just as eternal and timeless.
3) Your movie has the Civil War as its backdrop.
The truth is, you could take out “Civil War” and replace it with “just about any war,” and this component of the Dad Movie would still be the same. But News of the World is set in the aftermath of that great conflict, and Hanks plays a former Union captain. So while the movie doesn’t offer that full-throttled war-movie experience, it definitely evokes the urgency and life-or-death stakes endemic to war.
The stereotypical dad — or, really, the stereotypical older man — can’t get enough of war films, which is funny considering that guys are often assumed to hate period films. But that’s not really true: Apparently, what they dislike are period films in which there aren’t lots of explosions. Of course, I’m broadly generalizing, but the fact is dads like history if it has the drama and excitement of action movies. With that in mind, News of the World might not be as electric as more traditional war films, although it does feature one superb shootout. But it definitely seems like between this movie and Greyhound, Hanks knows the milieu his target audience enjoys. He’s playing on the nostalgia for bygone combat, which is far easier to romanticize than the prolonged, problematic wars that have ensnared America in recent decades.
4) Your movie has an older guy protecting a kid.
In News of the World, Captain Kidd chaperones a defenseless girl through treacherous terrain, creating a paternal dynamic that’s popular among dad audiences. This is a familiar template: Whether you’re talking about an actual father or a surrogate father figure, movies like The Road, Man on Fire and this month’s The Midnight Sky are all about an older man having to protect a child. News of the World is part of this tradition, depicting the adult male protagonist as the one charged with safeguarding the kid and, more broadly, maintaining a social order in which evil cannot prevail.
These films all play into a patriarchal vision of the world — only Dad can save us — which isn’t to suggest that these stories are inherently sexist. But they definitely do prop up an antiquated idea of men as providers and warriors — which, frankly, is how a lot of us viewed our own fathers growing up. But while the male hero is the story’s champion, there’s often something else going on simultaneously in these films: As he goes on this perilous odyssey, he’s given the chance to exorcise some demons or perhaps make up for a past failing. He’s not just saving the child… he’s really saving himself. The best way for men in Dad Movies to discover their humanity is by helping the helpless.
On the most elemental level, you can see why these movies appeal to real-life dads: They flatter a dad’s place in the world, even if they’ve never had to square off with Old West thieves or killer aliens. And unlike the lame tie you got your actual dad for Father’s Day, a film such as News of the World allows him to know that he’s appreciated.
5) Your movie has an unambiguous hero.
For years, thanks largely to Taken, Hollywood has pumped out a string of action-thrillers starring older actors breaking skulls and shooting guns. Obviously, these “geri-action” films cater to an older audience that has a fondness for these aging stars, but for it to be a proper Dad Movie, I think you need to add an important ingredient, which is that the main character has to be an unambiguous hero. This doesn’t mean they can’t be “complicated” figures — there can be plenty of nuance — but, ultimately, you know that the good guy is the good guy. There’s no gray there.
Hanks depicts such a hero in News of the World. Although he’s mourning the death of his wife, Kidd isn’t some miserable sonuvabitch. Rather, he’s an honorable soul who just wants to read the news to the townspeople along his travels — and even though he’s initially reluctant to get involved in Johanna’s troubles, well, he takes those on, too. As Kidd goes about his journey, he doesn’t complain or get sore at the girl — he just does what needs to be done.
And that’s what makes a film like News of the World catnip for dads: It’s about a straightforward, solid fella. The stereotypical dad wants a character he can root for — and maybe even relate to — and Kidd’s rumpled decency fits the bill. While dads can get behind certain antiheroes — I’ll never get over how much Breaking Bad’s Walter White dug Al Pacino in Scarface — there’s a heartening familiarity to News of the World that assures audiences from the beginning that Kidd will be a font of goodness who dispatches any evildoers along his path.
If there’s nothing remotely surprising about News of the World, well, that’s part of what makes it the ideal Dad Movie. That’s all dads really want: Something they can count on. I mean, think of all the aggravation and misery you’ve put your old man through in his life. Doesn’t he deserve a little time to himself? Just give him Tom Hanks going across the desert protecting a little girl. It’s as well-worn and comfy as the recliner he loves in the living room.