Tom Hanks excels at playing real-life heroes (Part 2)

In the first part of this post, I recapped five real-life characters that Tom Hanks has portrayed in his big screen career, starting in 1995 with Jim Lovell in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, up until 2015 when he played lawyer-turned-negotiator James Donovan in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. In this second and concluding part, let’s look at three other real-life characters Hanks has played out of the nine films he has appeared in since 2015. And frankly, other than those three films (plus Toy Story 4), his other recent films have been rather mediocre.

Sully (2016): In his first collaboration with veteran actor-director Clint Eastwood, Hanks played pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who successfully crash-landed an ailing commercial plane in the freezing Hudson river with no loss of life or critical injuries in January 2009. Sully chronicles the heart-stopping incident and the subsequent federal investigation during which he and his co-pilot had to prove that they made the right decision to ditch in The Hudson rather than divert to a nearby airfield. Just as Bridge of Spies is one of my best-loved films from the latter stages of Spielberg’s career, Sully is the same with respect to Clint Eastwood’s (the others being Jersey Boys and The Mule). I love the film for its matter-of-fact narrative of a very dramatic event and the quiet confidence of its two leads played by Hanks and Aaron Eckhart…a closer depiction of real life, as compared to the typical Hollywood dramatization. Released in time for the 2016 awards season, the film was a solid though unspectacular performer at the box office, but certainly profitable because Eastwood’s films are always shot economically. Although it featured in a few year-end top ten lists, the film didn’t garner any major awards. It is eminently re-watchable though, and I look forward to it popping up on cable or streaming from time to time.

US Airways pilots Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the aftermath of the crash-landing of Flight 1549 in “Sully” (2016), directed by Clint Eastwood

The Post (2017): The following year, Hanks appeared in his fifth film with Steven Spielberg, the political thriller The Post, which follows a long tradition of Hollywood films honoring the heroism of American journalism in the face of vested interests. Incredibly, this was the first time in their long careers that Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep would star in a movie together. Streep played Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post newspaper and Hanks played its editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee. Although I enjoyed the film while watching it, I honestly can’t remember (nor particularly care) what it was all about. But there was no denying the pleasure of watching an ensemble of supremely gifted actors ply their craft under the skilled guidance of an all-time great director. The Post was a modest commercial performer (helped by a relatively low budget given its high profile cast and crew), but it was a big success during awards season, with Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress (Streep’s umpteenth!) and a Golden Globe nomination for Tom Hanks.

Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) in “The Post” (2017), directed by Steven Spielberg

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019): Hanks worked with a female director for the first time in his career, starring in Marielle Heller’s third film, following on from her breakout 2015 debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl and 2018’s amazing biographical film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which garnered Oscar nominations for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. This film is very special to me because of my love for the children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood which I would religiously watch as a kid. The 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a wonderful homage to the show’s host Fred Rogers and is a good primer for those unfamiliar with the series which ran for 31 seasons from 1968. Marielle Heller’s film focuses on a jaded, cynical journalist (played by Matthew Rhys) who has been assigned against his will to interview Fred Rogers, and uses his experience to showcase the warm, caring qualities of the celebrated, but grounded TV host. Through a series of interactions that echo the ministrations of a priest on a wayward member of his flock, Fred Rogers gets the journalist to face up to his own pent-up frustrations and repair his broken family ties. This understated but deeply moving performance yielded Hanks his sixth Oscar nomination and his first since Cast Away 19 years earlier.

When Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this year in Australia, he was filming for yet another real-life character portrayal, playing Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of the rock and roll legend. The film is scheduled for release in November 2021. Interestingly, this would be the second time Hanks plays this sort of character, having appeared as Mr. White in the delightful musical comedy That Thing You Do!, which he himself directed in 1996.

What’s remarkable about Tom Hanks’ real-life roles is that he plays them with minimum theatrics, no prosthetics and little physical transformation (he seems to reserve that for some of his fictional characters). Since they are all American, he doesn’t even need to change his accent; the only exception being the southern twang he adopts for Charlie Wilson’s War, but then Hanks has shown a fondness for playing characters from the South, including the title role in Forrest Gump and Professor Dorr in The Ladykillers. His conventional looks allow him to be chameleonlike, hiding in plain sight as we focus on the emotional journey of his characters, their motivations and actions, as they play everyman heroes caught up in extraordinary events.

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