Tom Hanks was born on July 9, 1956. I was born two weeks earlier on June 26, 1956. Despite my 13-day running head-start on him, Tom Hanks has surpassed me in just about every way. Which is okay. It’s fine. I’m my own person. I shouldn’t compare myself. It’s no big deal…. Well, maybe it’s kind of a big deal. I mean, I once told my ex-wife that I am 13 days older than Tom Hanks and her response was: “Yeah, and look where he ended up. And you…” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged her shoulders in defeat.
What Tom Hanks has managed to do in all these years—and he is probably without peer in this—is to master a film persona that embodies how Americans still like to think of themselves, even in these rather shabby times: good-natured, honest, not flashy but still fun, loyal, taciturn when the occasion demands quietude, and possessed of an innate ability to turn heroic when things fall apart.
The prototype of this persona was his performance as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan (1998). But a more recent, equally heroic example of this is Captain Phillips (2013).
Based on the true story of an American merchant ship captain who is taken hostage by Somali pirates. The real Captain Phillips is a flinty New Englander who actually did allow himself to be taken hostage while he ordered the rest of his crew to hide on the ship as heavily-armed pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama. This movie is a marvelous thriller, and Hanks is utterly convincing as an unflappable sailor held captive by men who are growing increasingly desperate and unpredictable. And, man, does Hanks nail the Massachusetts accent perfectly. Great performance as well by Barkhad Abdi, the leader of the Somali pirate gang. A fabulous movie and one worth watching again and again.
You may have forgotten about this movie. It came out a quarter-century ago. It was about a rising young corporate litigator who contracts AIDS and the reluctant attorney who represents him in an employment lawsuit. No thank you, I thought, and avoided the movie for years because it had all the earmarks of Way Too Earnest. And then I finally watched it and found it to be a hundred times more moving and complicated than I originally expected. This was Hanks’ first really big dramatic role. Up to this point, he had made a nice career in light-hearted but effective comedies, generally playing the goofball. Here he plays the dying man with incredible dignity and determination who ends up gaunt, hairless, and covered with sores. Denzel Washington is tremendous as his attorney. Get a box of tissues and settle in. This one is worth it.
Occasionally you run across a movie in which one of the leads is in every scene. It can be dazzling and brilliant; I’m thinking here of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977). Or it can be a complete and embarrassing disaster, and here I am thinking of John Travolta in Battlefield Earth (2000). Tom Hanks is in nearly all the scenes in this movie. Not only that, Hanks plays most of the movie by himself as the FedEx employee stranded on a remote desert island in the South Pacific after a horrific plane crash. This movie falls into the brilliant category. Hanks’ Chuck Noland is every one of us—an everyday guy who finds himself in terrible and unrelenting peril, followed by loneliness. Wonderful screenplay by William Broyles, Jr., and directed perfectly by Robert Zemeckis. Unforgettable. If you ever wondered what you would do in this situation, this movie is your roadmap.
This Steven Spielberg movie caught me completely by surprise. It features no special effects, it doesn’t have aliens, nor is it about a great historical figure or World War II—all hallmarks of Spielberg movies. No, this is a simple chase story about an earnest FBI agent (Hanks) pursuing and coming to respect his prey, the con man Frank Abagnale (Leonardo diCaprio). The deck is completely stacked in diCaprio’s favor as the charming rogue whom you’re cheering on to continue his flim-flamming ways. You naturally want to cheer for him, but Hanks’ portrayal of the serious and unflinching agent Hanratty wins you over and you find yourself cheering for both of them. Hanks here plays a man who sacrifices everything to be a good FBI agent and get the bad guys, even if he actually likes and admires the bad guy. It’s one of Hanks’ most subtle and affecting performances.
This, as they used to say, “is the rest of the story.” Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was a nearing-retirement commercial pilot who heroically landed a damaged plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all the passengers and crew. Seemed like a pure enough story until experts started questioning Sullenberger’s decisions and claimed the plane could have returned to LaGuardia Airport safely instead of going for the risky river landing Sullenberger chose. Hanks is perfect as the modest but steely and courageous Sully, who reluctantly has to fight to clear his name. Directed by another American film icon, Clint Eastwood, this was one of DVD Netflix's most rented DVDs of 2016.
By the way, Tom Hanks and I also have two other fairly obscure things in common.
We both worked on sitcoms created by the late Chris Thompson. Hanks starred on Bosom Buddies (1980-1982), and I was a writer on Ladies Man (1999-2000). Both of these shows were fairly terrible, although Ladies Man did have Betty White and Alfred Molina in the cast, so how this project managed to fail is something of a mystery.
Both of us married women who are Orthodox Christian and we converted. Rita Wilson is Bulgarian Orthodox and my ex is Serbian Orthodox. And that may be where the similarities end.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.