It had to be Tom Hanks.
There was no one else but the legendary actor to host the 2021 inaugural celebration. The authoritative and avuncular presence of Hanks, who for many was the first person whose COVID-19 diagnosis made the virus’ threat feel real, represented a tentative hope that the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel was brightening. America’s Dad was here to assure us everything would be okay.
Yet just two weeks after the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, Hanks’ close association with America’s democratic values gave the proceedings additional thematic heft. Framed against the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., Tom Hanks did not appear to stand in front of them so much as he stood amongst them. Here, too, was a powerful projection of the country’s spiritual leadership.
Hanks is one of few contemporary actors who truly merits the label of “iconic” in the vein of an old-fashioned movie star. To some extent, he’s always playing the idea of himself for us – but it works because people understand the ideals for which he stands. Hanks’ storied career exemplifies a commitment to duty, honor, and service with a particular civically-minded bent in everything from the persona to the performances.
It’s a frequent trait of comforting cinematic parents that their character arcs take a backseat to a younger protagonist; they are static while everything else changes. So, too, have we lost the journey of America’s Dad. Though tempting to see his exploration of heroism as an ongoing, enduring commitment, Hanks’ vantage point on the men he plays has shifted with time. To look at Forrest Gump and Mr. Rogers, for example, and only see a throughline of inspiring childlike compassion elides the evolution of his approach.
Precedent exists for an established star to toy with their public image. The once-chipper Jimmy Stewart, the stalwart everyman whose legacy has hung around Hanks’ neck like an albatross his entire career, shifted into a much darker register after seeing the horrors of WWII up close during his military service. The parallel does not quite work for Hanks, however, given that his career choices of late are not so much a reaction to what he’s done so much as they represent a maturation of his approach to similar material. Nor does his recent output compute as a strain of resistance to Trumpism, a tempting conclusion to make given Hanks’ penchant for heeding history and cherishing citizenship.
The emergence of this “new Hanks Hero” dates back to 2013’s Captain Phillips and reaches a new apex with the actor’s latest film, 2020’s News of the World. These two collaborations with director Paul Greengrass bookend a fascinating decade in which Hanks has examined and enriched his understanding of heroism in films like Bridge of Spies, Sully, The Post, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and Greyhound. His heroism project of recent years goes beyond simply epitomizing the “Great Man” archetype and delves into deconstructing what it really means to put values into practice.
The Original Hanks Hero: An Impetuous Individualist
Unlike the typical screen stars of Hollywood’s golden era, Hanks made his name not by being larger than life but rather through channeling the everyday virtue of the common man. Be it in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, the movies for which he won consecutive Oscars, or Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Cast Away, Hanks plays ordinary people who become extraordinary by rising to difficult circumstances.
Some, like Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 or Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan, possess more technical knowledge to ground themselves. Yet all the enemies are so imposing – Nazis, homophobia, nature itself, the uncharted and unpredictable reaches of space – and the battles are so unfamiliar that the fights render their experience largely meet. They are frequently in such immediate, imminent peril that they do not have the ability to recognize their limitations.
That emphasis on rising to an occasion rather than preparing copiously for it makes Hanks’ characters inspiring for the average moviegoer who faces daunting challenges without any kind of expertise in their own lives. It’s not what Hanks’ characters know so much as what they do that enables them to succeed. All these characters must pull on the strength of their character and the fierceness of their resolve to wage a valiant battle. Hanks’ characters might not always see the victory or triumph in a traditional sense; the closing summation in Apollo 13 of the mission as a “successful failure” sums up many of these movies quite well. Nonetheless, the contributions the original Hanks heroes make are undeniable for a cause to prevail.
By extension of their association with the military, the justice system in The Green Mile, or large capitalistic entities like FedEx in Cast Away, Hanks’ characters are almost always an extension of America itself. In The Terminal, a rare foreign character for Hanks, the central irony of the film is that his Viktor Navorski represents the American values better than the stingy supervisor tasked with protecting the country’s borders. The success of these characters speaks to the soundness of American civic mythology, chiefly that of rugged individualism.
The power of a single person to chart their own destiny is a theme running through early Hanks heroes. Cast Away takes this to a literal extreme when Hanks’ Chuck Noland proves he can survive four years alone on a desert island. It’s also portrayed with a heavy dose of irony in Forrest Gump as Hanks’ titular character runs peripherally through the high points of the American century, making his own way more through luck and naïveté than by virtue of his accomplishments or self-awareness. But no matter which end of the spectrum Hanks’ characters tilt, they achieve their ends with humility, honesty, and hard work.
Taken together, these roles are a thesis on how any one of us can become the best of us. America and its institutions succeed because they enable regular, decent men to take charge and shine when thrust into the line of duty. Unprepared though they may be, the original Hanks hero is undeterred by his foe and unencumbered by authority.
The New Hanks Hero: An Indefatigable Institutionalist
The new Hanks hero might seem affable and approachable like his previous characters, but these new iterations of familiar figures frequently share little else. Many of the roles Tom Hanks has assumed have familiar names: legendary newspaper editor Ben Bradlee in The Post, beloved children’s television host Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Others have reputations that precede them in ripped-from-the-headlines stories like the titular characters in Captain Phillips and Sully. Even when it comes to unfamiliar characters like in Bridge of Spies or those cut from the cloth of fiction as in News of the World or Greyhound, it’s immediately clear that these are men of immense stature and face conflicts commensurate to their position.
More than mere men, they have been elevated to embodying ideas or ideals: freedom of the press in The Post, kindness in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, American capitalism in Captain Phillips, diplomacy and democracy in Bridge of Spies, both paternalism and storytelling in News of the World. The new Hanks hero might still possess the muscle memory of a young man’s bravado, yet he must now evaluate the consequences of what failure means when so many depend on his success. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance if he falters.
The battlefields of these films are less literal and more frequently staged in the minds of Hanks’ characters, where they must decide how to square their values and experiences with a shifting reality. They spend as much time deliberating as doing. Bridge of Spies and The Post are structured around the fraught conversations leading up to a giant decision and how Hanks’ characters must assiduously lobby for their points of view. Hanks’ Commander Ernest Krause might lead his men into naval battle with Nazi U-boats in Greyhound, but the film’s most thrilling action occurs from watching him plot strategy while weighing likely victory against inevitable loss of soldiers’ lives. In News of the World, Hanks’ Civil War vet Captain Kidd internally debates whether he ought to play a parental function in the life of a young orphan as he embarks on a long journey to deliver her to next of kin.
The new Hanks hero understands his duties to the souls in his care and the institutions in his trust. These men face their fair share of tough professional challenges from formidable adversaries, to be sure. But the foes of the new Hanks hero do not define the character’s most important struggle. As avatars for the organizations they lead or standards they bear, these men must defend the legacy of what they represent – as well as how their own choices uphold it – in the face of tremendous doubt and disbelief from the people around them.
Lawyer James Donovan, saddled with the task of providing legal representation to a suspected Soviet spy in Bridge of Spies, must forcefully assert the Constitution’s protections for all those accused of criminal acts even it would be easier to cave to expedient political pressures. A cynical journalist grills Fred Rogers throughout A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood about the feasibility of his compassionate approach to living, convinced the right question can puncture his saintly aura. Unlike the past generation of Hanks heroes, these men lack the ability or luxury of ignoring their limitations or the criticisms levied against them. The doubters call on him to answer for them directly.
These elders must reckon with what they stand for as much as they have to counter what they stand against. Rather than charging offensively forward for their values, they’re playing defense and resting on their institutional know-how. Cargo ship captain Richard Phillips spends most of Captain Phillips scanning the situation after Somalian pirates hijack his ship, looking for ways he can turn a volatile scenario to his advantage without endangering his crew. After the initial adulation following his landing of a commercial plane in the Hudson River, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger of Sully must respond to the scrutiny for relying on his aviation intuition rather than following existing protocol.
Hanks openly grapples with this responsibility in all these films. He shoulders a burden heavy enough to cut through skin and gash a raw nerve. Though little can deter him from this selfless and empathetic wielding of his authority, Hanks lets us peek behind the curtain to see the toll that leadership takes on those entrusted with such obligations. The high stakes reveal a striking vulnerability in the characters as they stare into the abyss of their own fallibility. This reaches a new apex in News of the World when the climax reveals part of why Captain Kidd, a traveling newsreader, relishes in recounting other people’s grand stories is to avoid finally facing an intimate story of his own.
But these journeys that shatter the notion that the new Hanks hero is not in complete control do not make them any less inspirational or aspirational. Rather, he becomes a better leader when held to account or put through an emotional wringer. Subjecting Hanks’ heroes to scrutiny does not erase the errors he commits or perpetuates; in fact, the crucible of these films tends to forge an even greater commitment to his principles. Imperfect though his actions may be, the new Hanks hero refuses to let anyone define them as invalid.
This level of introspective wisdom represents a clear maturation in the way Hanks formulates heroism. It’s not a rejection of his prior work, though it is interesting to see how many of his recent films reframe or echo a prior role.
Cast Away and Captain Phillips are both films about American businessmen ensuring the flow of commerce, though only the latter forces a Hanks hero to come face-to-face with the chickens of globalism’s discontent that have come home to roost.
Forrest Gump and It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood each have kind-hearted protagonists, yet it’s Mr. Rogers who makes the more compelling and self-conscious case for why gentility and compassion should serve as a guiding moral compass.
Apollo 13 and Sully both re-stage famously chaotic aerospace journeys, although the second goes a step further and shows how bureaucracy can pose a threat equivalent to Mother Nature in its own right.
Philadelphia and Bridge of Spies both concern equal justice under the law, but the more recent film delves deeper into the murkier grey areas of upholding the Constitution.
This evolution of Tom Hanks on-screen mirrors that of many viewers off-screen in the same time period. The United States is a country of great people, yes, but that matters little when they are not guiding the institutions that shape civic life. Seismic social and political changes have forced Americans to see those who lead us as fallible, our institutions as vulnerable, and our history as spotted. Yet even in spite of this, Tom Hanks still stands up straight all the same in steadfast support of his longstanding values. This new Hanks hero exudes confidence that who America is can determine the future of the country. The mistakes of the past need not represent a ceiling in his eyes, for the act of learning from them can guide the collective on a more fruitful path.
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