It seems like everybody loves Tom Hanks. He’s the modern day Jimmy Stewart, a guy whose versatility, consistency, and overall approachability is why he’s become such an enduring icon who still gets top-notch acting gigs. But what makes Hanks more than just a lucky average actor is how he’s intentionally evolved his normal-guy persona. He emerged from the depths of schlocky network TV shows to become a humble dude who isn’t a stranger to the awards season stage.
On the verge of his grey-haired role as heroic pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in director Clint Eastwood’s Sully, let’s take a look back at the specific complex stages of Tom Hanks’s everyman persona.
It’s too perfect that the first real milestone in Hanks’s career has him playing a literal manchild. Past the absurdity of his TV work on something like Bosom Buddies, director Penny Marshall’s Big positioned Hanks as more than just a klutz yucking it up for innocent laughs. Instead this 1988 fantasy comedy saw him literally grow up before our very eyes into the charming everyman with the easily digestible moral complexity that would typify his early-to-mid career roles. The role of Josh Baskin, the 12-year-old New Jersey tween whose wish to grow up is granted by a mystical fortune telling machine, was the nascent version of the persona that Hanks would perfect.
He’s the everyman — in this case the everykid — who gets more than they bargained for and has to search within himself to come to a subtly heroic decision. BigBig could have been saccharine pap with anybody else in the role, and yet Hanks’s aw-shucks humanity is what makes it truly memorable and funny. But he needed to actually* grow up to make it to the next watershed moment in his career.
Philadelphia / Forrest Gump
While Hanks continued to cultivate the image of the charming regular guy with a touch of absurdity in movies like The Burbs, Joe Versus the Volcano, and what is perhaps his most well known role as the heroic cowboy Woody in the Toy Story series, as the 1990s began, he seemed determined to dig deeper. He’d tried to mature in things like The Bonfire of the Vanities, but that was such a colossal box office failure that it overshadowed Hanks’s performative blooming. In the one-two punch of 1993’s Philadelphia and 1994’s Forrest Gump, Hanks found roles that used that impression in two different and equally fascinating ways.
As a gay corporate lawyer forced out of his lucrative career because he’s suffering from AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, Hanks tried to use the recognizable perception of himself as a way to shed light on and remove the stigma of taboos like homosexuality and a positive HIV status. The role of Andrew Beckett earned Hanks his first Oscar for Best Actor. While a lack of dimensionality in the film’s gay characters could be seen as troubling retroactively, Hanks’s portrayal at least began a conversation that just wasn’t happening among mainstream viewers in ‘90s America.
Hanks picked up another Oscar the following year as the titular character in Forrest Gump, director Robert Zemeckis’s smash hit about a guy who happens to witness all of the century’s most important historical events. In some scenes, Forrest Gump feels like the kid from Big stayed grown up and matured less. The movie is beloved for sure, but the role seems problematic for Hanks’s maturation. Gump’s passivity is questionable; he’s effectively an indirect and unimportant spectator. Forrest Gump, in effect, is the most distilled version of the belief that Hanks represents normal people who go on to do noteworthy deeds. He doesn’t try to change the world, it just kind of happens to him.
Road to Perdition / Saving Private Ryan
One thing Hanks never seemed to play was the bad guy, at least until director Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition tried to upend that actor’s image once again by giving a doom and gloom performance no one had ever really seen him achieve before. He’d maintained the ordinary savior roles in movies like Apollo 13 and The Green Mile, but as Michael Sullivan Sr., a Chicago hitman out for revenge after the murder of his wife and son, he had to become somebody other people feared. Whether he succeeded at being Bad Hanks is up to debate, as his miscasting might have injected the film with a bit too much sentimentality for its own good. But at least the question was raised about how audiences might react to the ordinary-Joe who doesn’t hesitate to kill if need be.
If Road to Perdition raised the question but didn’t quite offer any solutions, the inquiry was conveniently answered four years earlier. As Captain John Miller in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 World War II masterpiece Saving Private Ryan, Hanks’s character was an intentional cypher, an actual every-American fighting alongside countless like him. The running gag in the movie is that nobody really knows what Miller did for a living before the war, and when it’s revealed, his former life becomes a kind of personal crescendo. “I’m a school teacher. I teach English Composition in this little town called Addley, Pennsylvania,” he tells his squad after a horrific battle that killed one of their own. “Back home when I tell people what I do for a living, they think, well, that, that figures,” he continues, “But over here it’s a big mystery.”
Because it’s Hanks saying those lines, it’s somehow more admissible than if another actor delivered them. For the first time Hanks seemed to embrace the complexities of what his squeaky clean image meant, almost like the complete opposite of Forrest Gump.
Captain Phillips / Bridge of Spies / Sully
Hanks’s output during the aughts became a kind of mixed bag. He even attempted to become a blockbuster hero in the Da Vinci Code movie and its sequels. But in the new decade Hanks would embark on a trilogy of stories based on true events that solidified his elder statesman role of a morally just individual who must overcome his relative problems for the common good.
What differentiated his turns in Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies and the upcoming film Sully, is that Hanks is no longer delivering his fictional image. Instead he’s literally embodying the real life stories of the people he once merely represented in films more complex than simple biopics. Whether it’s saving a container ship from Somali pirates, being the messenger in a tense Cold War situation, or saving the lives of commercial flight passengers, Hanks has successfully elevated the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Photos via Getty Images / Kevin Winter