The Underrated Tom Hanks

Is it possible for an actor to be nominated five times for an Oscar and still be underrated? Somehow, Tom Hanks has pulled off that feat. Because viewers (accurately) perceive him as a likeable, friendly guy, they believe that no matter the role, he’s basically playing a version of himself onscreen. The suggestion is one of the few reliable ways to make Hanks grumpy: as he complained some years ago, “Because I am that nice-guy Everyman, people say, Well, he’s just playing himself again. That’s right, clear the set. They’re all the same. Andy in Philadelphia is just like Jim Lovell, and Forrest Gump is just like all the rest. Maybe I’m oversensitive about it.”

Watch the five roles that earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Actor—Big, Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump, and Philadelphia (he won for the last two)—and you’ll see four very different men, plus one boy trapped in a man’s body. I’m assuming you’re familiar with his excellent work in all five of those movies and don’t need further proof that Hanks is good at this acting thing —  but what if you want to go deeper?

An occupational hazard of writing a book about Tom Hanks (The World According to Tom Hanks: The Life, the Obsessions, the Good Deeds of America’s Most Decent Guy): you end up watching a lot of Tom Hanks movies. I saw all 55, from the forgotten slasher movie He Knows You’re Alone (1980) to the lauded Spielberg drama The Post (2018). So I can confidently tell you that the Hanks CV doesn’t have much in the way of unfairly ignored obscurities, both because his movies have been reliable moneymakers and because he’s largely eschewed cameos and supporting roles. But unless you’re an obsessive film fan or a Tom Hanks biographer (guilty on both counts), you probably haven’t seen all five of these outstanding performances. Check them out and fill some of the gaps.





Catch Me If You Can

When Hanks started his film career, the main qualities that he had going for him were a likeable on-screen quality, on-set professionalism, and comic timing. Those attributes carried him through the 1980s as he churned out one comedy after another, some inspired (Big), some not (Dragnet). He turned a corner in 1992, just before A League of Their Own, when he decided, basically, that he wanted to make better movies. Plenty of actors feel that way—what makes Hanks’ story remarkable is that he was actually ready to deliver more.

So by 2002, when he made this movie with his pal Steven Spielberg and costar Leonardo DiCaprio, he still had the professionalism, but he didn’t need to lean so hard on the likability or the timing. His character Carl Hanratty, an FBI agent tracking down DiCaprio’s charming con man, is good-hearted but dour—and fascinating because of his level of obsession. When Hanks collaborates with Spielberg, they usually achieve excellent results (see also Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies, and The Post), but the roles aren’t scenery-chewing showcases for Hanks: he delivers what the movie needs and trusts the director he calls “El Jefe” to make it work.

Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks plays six completely different roles in this sprawling, ambitious, not really successful 2012 adaptation of the David Mitchell novel: a Scottish hotel clerk, an actor in a TV melodrama, a malicious surgeon on a 19th-century sailing ship, a whistleblower at a nuclear power plant with a historically bad 1970s haircut, and a goat herder in postapocalyptic Hawaii speaking pidgin English. If you missed him doing repertory theater in Ohio in the late 1970s, this movie is your best opportunity to experience him in that freewheeling mode.
Hanks is manifestly having a blast the whole time—but never more than when he’s playing Dermot Hoggins, a Cockney gangster who writes a flop novel, Knuckle Sandwich, and responds to a condescending review by grabbing the critic at a London book party and throwing him off the roof of a building. “I don’t give a fuck what happens when I’m dead,” Hoggins declares. “I want people to buy me book now.” Hanks inhabits Hoggins—bald, swaggering, clad in tight shiny clothing—with the enthusiasm of a man who knows he’s getting a vacation from his own sunny personality.

Charlie Wilson’s War

For just about any role, an actor is putting on a costume: a protective carapace of somebody else’s words and motivations and beliefs. Usually, if a performance alludes to that quality of make-believe, that means you’re in for an evening of winking and fourth-wall demolition.
Subverting that expectation is what makes Tom Hanks’ performance in Charlie Wilson’s War so fascinating. Playing the title role in this 2007 movie (written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols) means that he’s portraying a party-boy Congressman (a real guy) who parties with strippers in hot tubs and offends his Muslim hosts at the Pakistani presidential palace by asking for a glass of whiskey. When Charlie Wilson receives an unexpected assignment from Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, he instructs an aide, “If anyone asks what the hell I’m doing on the Ethics Committee, we’ll just tell them I like chasing women and drinking whiskey and the Speaker felt we were underrepresented.”
Although the congressman is surrounded by a 100-proof haze, Hanks makes you believe that there’s a fierce, calculating mind behind the drunken squint. And in so doing, he reminds you that the same crafty intelligence animates every one of his performances.

The Ladykillers

This 2004 movie is probably the Coen brothers’ worst film: a comedy where the schtick is mostly awkward and nothing especially funny happens. Nevertheless, it features a great Hanks performance as the mastermind of a gang of con men and thieves, Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr. It’s an outsized role: a preening Southern gentleman full of vanity, desperation, and pompous dialogue such as “We must all have waffles forthwith.”
When Dorr laughs at one of his own jokes, it’s an asthmatic gasp, as if he were briefly so overcome by his own cleverness that he forgot to breathe. The mannerism, which Joel and Ethan Coen dubbed “the rat quiver laugh,” was a Hanks invention, and it emerged from him doing the necessary spadework of an actor: imagining the life of his character before he appeared on screen. As Hanks explained, “I had this vision that he’s a college professor of a very, very boring subject, and every now and again he would make these witticisms that he’d be the only one laughing at, up at the lectern. And it made Ethan laugh, so I just tried to make him laugh again and again over by the monitor.”

Captain Phillips

In the 21st century, Tom Hanks has ranked up an impressive run of playing real people: Ben Bradlee. Walt Disney. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. (Coming next year: Mr. Fred Rogers.) Those performances land somewhere between impersonation and embodiment: if the production gets Sully’s white hair right or nails Disney’s mustache, then Hanks is liberated to express the inner life of the man.

The very best of these biographical renderings is Captain Richard Phillips, the title role in this gripping 2013 Paul Greengrass movie about a freighter ship hijacked by Somali pirates. Hanks plays the captain as a brusque, grumpy New Englander with a paunch. As the crisis escalates, the pirates get even jumpier than the merchant marines they’re ordering around—scary, since the pirates are the ones with automatic weapons.
Under duress, Captain Phillips remains a middle-aged professional: he doesn’t build a flamethrower to repel the attackers or otherwise turn into a Bruce Willis character. But when he lets himself be taken hostage so his crew can go free, it’s an act of pure heroism—and all the more striking because Hanks has rendered the character not as a superhero, but as a human being.