In Five Films

In Five Films: Tom Hanks

Arguably the world's favourite actor, we rundown five defining performances to coincide with the release of News of the World

Can an entire career be captured In Five Films? We attempt to showcase every side of a particular filmmaker, actor, or film person in just a handful of picks.

Ask anyone who the nicest actor in Hollywood is, and you'll probably get an answer that sounds a lot like: “Tom Hanks.” But where do we get this impression of Hanks as the most trustable of everymen, an actor few would admit to disliking for fear something would be deemed wrong with them? It's all part of the Hanks brand, of course: carefully-chosen roles that exemplify the American ideal. “A Tom Hanks Film.” You know just what you're getting. Until you don't.

Hanks made his name as a comedy actor, coming up in the 80s, but later proved himself just as adept as a serious performer (and two Academy Awards, earned on consecutive years, are testament to that). Yet his real skill lies in his working of both comedy and drama, in that interesting space between the two. Nowadays, Hanks has settled into position as Hollywood's favourite uncle, or cinema's Jiminy Cricket, the sort of person – or whose characters, at least – we're all vying to live up to.

Few careers are as rich; few movie stars have managed to retain the same appeal for as long. To celebrate the release of Paul Greengrass' western News of the World, we've tried to distill Hanks' filmography down to just five key films. You're bound to disagree – but that only seems like a logical reaction to an icon whose works have come to mean so much to so many…

 

Big (1988)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The everyman appeal that has come to define Tom Hanks is apparent in spades in this, his breakout film, which – with a story where a 13-year-old boy essentially has a sexual relationship with a woman in her thirties – absolutely should not work, but somehow thrives in spite of all its illogicality. It's common to say, “Nobody could have played this part except for…”, but Big's success really does feel indebted to Hanks pitch-perfect turn, in which he successfully channels the manner of a child into his adult body, a performance of inspired, loose-limbed physicality. Yet he never overplays it, finding the exact right measure of imitation. The compassionate direction from Penny Marshall and beautiful cinematography from Barry Sonnenfeld are a bonus.

 

Toy Story (1995)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Tom Hanks is known for his nice guy persona, and we tend to extend that to his movie roles. But Woody, the sheriff from Pixar's Toy Story, isn't your typical “nice” character, per se, which is what makes him so rich a creation. Again, it's easy to say: “Nobody could have voiced Woody except Hanks,” but maybe it's better to say “Nobody could have made Woody so likeable except for Hanks.” This is one of the most layered and vocal performances in animated movie history; the seamlessness line going between the man and the toy is so strong it almost appears pre-destined. Despite the fact that Hanks is so vividly linked to this character, though, you never think about him in a booth, voicing Woody: they are intertwined, two sides of the same coin. Has another animated character ever gone through so many states and emotions and still kept us squarely on his side? Thus is the power of Hanks.

 

Forrest Gump (1995)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

If this isn't one of Hanks' best performances, it is an important milestone, a turn that seems entirely fundamental to Hanks and how we perceive him as an actor. Forrest Gump has aged badly in many ways, but Hanks' embodiment of the titular character in Robert Zemeckis' Oscar-winner retains the same, unexpected power, a beautiful blend of optimism and naivety. Again: imagine this role with anyone else – John Travolta was considered – and the movie seems to wither and die before your very eyes. It's so easy to underestimate Hanks' position in any film, because his placement always has such an effortless quality. But more often than not, he's the glue holding everything else together, with an uncanny ability to elevate the material. None so more than here.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In recent years, Hanks has really leaned into playing competent American professionals who just want to get the job done: think Sully, or Bridge of Spies, or Captain Phillips, or last year's Greyhound (and I implore you to watch all of them). They seem like his bread and butter now, roles he was born to play equally, and one might trace the origin of this type of Hanks character back to his performance as Captain John Miller in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, who embodies the kind of selfless, modest, wholesome “everyman” he's come to define in the last few decades. Miller is by nature a school teacher, not a soldier, and Hanks embodies the spirit of that notion perfectly. No wonder Spielberg never considered casting anyone else. Spielberg's film is a miraculous, epic vision of World War II bravado, yet Hanks is the buoy that centres the story and set-pieces, the compass that guides us through the hell of history: as invaluable to us as he is to his men.

 

Road to Perdition (2002)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Of course, it would eventually happen, that Hanks would take on a role that subverted all we knew of him: it's the natural step for an actor who's been pigeon-holed, or has grown tired with the public's perception of their range. The latter might not have been true of Hanks, but surely he felt the need to cast a different shade, or why shake things up? In Sam Mendes' adaptation of graphic novel Road to Perdition, Hanks is a hitman – a killer, a criminal – in the Depression-era mob, seeking revenge on the men who murdered his family. Still, because this is Hanks, he can't quite make the full transition: we are asked to emphasise, as Hanks smuggles in aspects of his usual, relatable self to the table. The picture itself feels somewhat calculated, though it is unmistakably beautiful, but Hanks is certainly working in a different register here than we're used to. That alone makes this one of his most interesting performances to date.

News of the World is now streaming on Netflix.

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