Tom Hanks excels at playing real-life heroes (Part 1)

Imagine you’re a Hollywood studio executive and you’ve been given an outline for a story based on a real-life event, featuring a protagonist who exhibits extraordinary strength of character in challenging circumstances. If the lead role calls for the casting of an outwardly unremarkable white male, chances are that Tom Hanks will be the first actor you will call. In the past 7 years, Hanks has become the go-to star for high profile projects, playing a wide array of real-life characters ranging from an airplane pilot and a merchant navy captain to a US congressman and a respected newspaper editor to a celebrated TV show host and the head of a movie studio.

Apollo 13 (1995): This exploration of real-life characters a quarter century earlier, as Commander Jim Lovell in the dramatic thriller Apollo 13. Having come off two back-to-back Best Actor Oscars, Hanks was red hot and had top billing, but in fact the film was very much an ensemble piece, notable especially for the determination and ingenuity depicted by the Houston ground crew under the leadership of Flight Director Gene Kranz (played so memorably by Ed Harris that I made a point of reading Krantz’ biography Failure Is Not An Option years later). I would go so far as to say that Hanks portrayed Jim Lovell with a certain blandness, which helped to accentuate the personalities and emotions of other key characters in the film. And so, while he missed out on a third consecutive Oscar nomination, Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan received Supporting Actor nominations, and the film a Best Picture nom. Deservedly, they all won the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007): Another 12 years passed before Hanks next played a real-life character. Charlie Wilson’s War was the final film of veteran director Mike Nichols’ storied career, one which started off four decades earlier with an Oscar nomination and a win respectively for his first two films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. In Charlie Wilson’s War, Tom Hanks plays the eponymous Texas Congressman, whose efforts led to the covert CIA-led Operation Cyclone which armed and financed Afghan mujahideen through the 1980s (and which, as we now know, led to the creation of Al-Qaeda and the 9-11 attacks). I never really enjoyed this film, as Nichols chose to make it a comedy-drama which doesn’t gel with the serious subject matter that it covers. Nevertheless, there is some outstanding acting on show here, with Hanks (once again) playing a somewhat bland foil to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s incendiary performance as CIA operative Gust Avrakos and Julia Roberts’ intelligent portrayal of Texas socialite/political lobbyist Joanne Herring. All three received Golden Globe acting nominations, but it was Hoffman who stole the show and received an Oscar nom, as well as numerous other accolades.

Captain Phillips (2013): Six years and six films later, we come to the beginning of Hanks’ extraordinary current streak of playing real-life characters. As the lead in Captain Phillips, he delivered what I consider his best acting performance since 2000’s Cast Away, playing the captain of a merchant vessel commandeered on the high seas by Somalian pirates. Based on the 2009 hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, the film was directed by Paul Greengrass as a taut psychological cat-and-mouse thriller involving the pirate leader and the captain.

Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) faces off against his captors in Captain Phillips (2013), directed by Paul Greengrass

The final moments of the kidnapping drama are almost unbearable to watch, with Hanks depicting a man experiencing pure terror as he faces certain death. And thereafter, the scene in which Capt. Phillips is examined by a medic while experiencing the after effects of the ordeal, is heartbreaking. The acting performance of those few minutes alone should have sufficed to land Hanks an Oscar win, but he wasn’t even nominated that year, one of the great travesties of recent award seasons. He did however, receive nominations from the Golden Globes, BAFTA and the Screen Actors Guild. And the film itself received 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor (for Barkhad Abdi as the pirate leader).

Saving Mr. Banks (2013): A couple of months later, in December 2013, Hanks was on the big screen again, this time playing none other than Walt Disney himself in the period drama, Saving Mr. Banks, which chronicles the negotiations between Disney and author P.L. Travers to get her beloved Mary Poppins stories adapted to film. I had high expectations from this film but the humorous tone often felt forced and out of sync with the personal history and serious underlying anxieties that sat at the heart of P.L. Travers irascible behaviour and her many confrontations with the naturally ebullient Disney and his staff. Hanks played Disney like a broad caricature of the man, with the script giving him little opportunity to humanize the individual behind the public persona. Of course, this was really a story about P.L. Travers’ emotional journey and Emma Thompson did not disappoint; she received several accolades for her portrayal of the celebrated writer.

Bridge of Spies (2015): Hanks’ next film reunited him with Steven Spielberg for the first time since The Terminal (2004). This is one of my favourite films of the late stages of both Spielberg’s and Hanks’ careers. I frequently forget, and then am surprised to recall, that the film was co-written by the Coen Brothers. While their own directorial efforts are laced with black humour, they wrote this film with the gravity and respect the subject matter deserves. The film chronicles the behind-the-scenes efforts to secure the release of Gary Powers, the American pilot who was shot down and captured while flying a spyplane over the Soviet Union in 1960, sparking one of the many diplomatic incidents which peppered the decades of the Cold War. Hanks plays lawyer James B. Donovan, whose conscientious defense of a captured Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel some years earlier, saved Abel from the death sentence, but resulted in severe criticism from the American public.

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and James Donovan (Tom Hanks) in Bridge of Spies (2015), directed by Steven Spielberg

This past connection with Abel now makes Donovan the most acceptable person to negotiate a quid-pro-quo spy-swap proposed by the Soviets: Gary Powers for Rudolf Abel. The bulk of the film is a narration of Donovan’s efforts in Berlin to secure the deal in the midst of a bleak winter just as the Berlin Wall is going up. Hanks plays Donovan as a man with humanity, humility, patience and intelligence, all the qualities shining through in his role as lead negotiator which eventually results in a successful exchange at Checkpoint Charlie on the Berlin Wall. It’s a highly satisfactory, feel-good film and just writing about it makes me nostalgic to watch it again. Once again, it was Hanks’ co-actor who had the opportunity to shine, with Mark Rylance winning an Oscar for portraying Rudolf Abel. The film itself was nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture and Screenplay.

In Part 2, I’ll cover off three more Tom Hanks films between 2016 and 2019, portraying real-life characters and incidents – Sully, The Post and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

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