My Favourite Tom Hanks Performances

The Terminal (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2004)

"I frankly and selfishly think it's the best performance Tom Hanks has ever given in a movie. That's my humble opinion." - Steven Spielberg (Quoted in Schickel, 2012: 219)

In The Terminal, Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man travelling from a fictional eastern European country called Krakozhia who finds himself stranded at JFK airport. Unable to either enter New York or return back to his hometown due to a military coup which has destabilised his government, Navorski is stuck in a bureaucratic limbo and at the mercy of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the unwavering customs director at JFK who stands between Viktor and his humble goal of entering the United States to fulfil a promise he made to his father before his death.

As Viktor becomes the man with no country, the terminal he's stranded in becomes a microcosm of America itself. JFK airport functions as its own city almost, a home where Hanks falls in love, finds a job and earns the respect of a community that slowly comes to accept and feel an affinity towards the lonely but resourceful outsider, who has had to adapt and survive in his new home by using an increasing number of ingenious solutions to remove the barriers that are initially in his path: hunger and communication. Soon enough he is earning enough money to buy Burger King meals once he's figured out that returning the luggage trolleys dotted around the terminal yields a quarter coin reward, or he is fixing his broken English by comparing identical travel guides in different languages. Communication is prevalent here as it is in many Spielberg films, it's a barrier for Viktor, but like the cosmic visitor in E.T, language doesn't prevent this stranger from touching the lives of those he meets in his journey. For an actor who has come to be nicknamed 'America's Dad', Hanks is extremely convincing as a fish-out-of-water foreigner. To Dixon he is a man from a country that is so incredibly detached from the ideals of the United States that he feels it's impossible for Viktor to ever really integrate into such a society. He for one can't understand the existence of the romance between him and flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) that blossoms, questioning why she would choose Viktor over any other man. Despite Dixon's own opinions, the character that Hanks inhabits here is as relatable as any other that the actor has played. "I believe all of us have felt a little bit like Viktor at some time in our lives", Spielberg has said, "this displaced person in search of a life" (Quoted in Schickel, 2012: 220).

The film isn't so naive and idealised to think that all people who pass though customs gates are as benign as Viktor. Dixon's job is an important one, and one that he is gifted at, as demonstrated in his ability at one point to spot a traveller who is trying to smuggle drugs through security. Dixon certainly isn't a bad man, just one that is concerned with doing his job so 'by the books' that he sometimes forgets that the rules need to be forgotten in order to show empathy. Hanks seems to be playing someone whose journey eventually becomes emblematic of the America which allows immigrants to come to in order to better their own lives, 'a reaffirmation of the inclusive spirit that welcomed newcomers such as Spielberg's own grandparents to the United States' (McBride, 2010: 499). It is this great melting pot, that Spielberg said in a 2004 interview is what makes the country so strong. Viktor puts his handy-man skills to work and is able to get a job working on the refurbishment of a new departure lounge, quite humorously with a wage packet that is bigger than Dixon's, the man who is responsible for Viktor's plight in the first place. Here, immigrants aren't the dehumanised beings that you see tabloid newspapers increasingly portray them as, they are important to the building of a nation such as America, but perhaps more importantly (as Dixon's boss himself points out), they are people who we ourselves can learn a thing or two from. Hanks plays the character so endearingly that we wish we could be more like him, or at the very least help him - at one point Spielberg makes us feel such empathy towards Viktor that we wish we could reach out and assist him ourselves. He gives us an incredibly ambitious shot that pulls away from Viktor who has just tried (in vain) to get help in using his pre-paid calling card. As it eventually dawns on him that no one will come to his aid, Hanks stands motionless as the hustle and bustle of the terminal crowds frantically move all around, we finally see the scale of the environment that Viktor is now trapped inside - a harsh world that he will eventually overcome though kindness and compassion, even if Dixon shows him none in return.

Slowly but surely, Hanks' character manages to peel back the bureaucratic ideals that Dixon has established at JFK. Spielberg sets up the routine and rigorous nature of border control as soon as the film starts, as we see various customs workers repeating the line: "What is the purpose of your visit?" to the tourists and businessmen who have disembarked from their flights. It is an ordered and repetitive world at the start, devoid of heart or sympathy, more like a factory than anything else. As Paul Bullock notes, Spielberg even manages incorporate such a theme into the opening title sequence; as he presents us with a departures board that is as 'cold and mechanical' as the airport itself. A motif that is dismantled for the end credits which shows the signatures of the cast and crew; a nod to the plot point of Hanks travelling to the USA to get an autograph of course, but also symbolic of how the airport is a 'much more human world' (Bullock, 2018) now that Viktor has passed through it.

"I was my father-in-law in that movie. Hassan Ibrahimoff was his name. When I go to Europe and work there for a long time, I can't tell you how often The Terminal is the first movie people mention, because, [affects Eastern European accent] 'You were me. That was me. You make my story'. As Americans, we come home to America and we have to go through Homeland Security and then we're done. The folks who are coming to America in order to see it for the first time, they have a whole different take on those boundaries between the plane and the street." - Tom Hanks (Quoted in Etkin, 2015)

Captain Phillips (Dir. Paul Greengrass, 2013)

“He’s given me so many of my treasured moments in the cinema. He’s a magnificent human actor. He can embody the Everyman like no one else."- Paul Greengrass (Quoted in Parade, 2013)

In Captain Phillips, Hanks plays the title character, the captain of the Maersk Alabama which is sailing off the Coast of Somalia when it is hijacked by pirates who demand ransom money for the safe return of the crew. What follows is Hanks' character struggling to negotiate with his captors as he tries to keep the whereabouts of his crew hidden from their attention. Through circumstance, Hanks soon finds himself trapped with the the pirates on a lifeboat, until the American military finally comes to his aid after a complex and large scale rescue attempt. 

This film is on the list because of the last scene alone, but to understand why that moment is so powerful, one has to understand everything that has come before it. Despite the physical and emotional stress that Phillips underwent throughout the whole ordeal, Hanks largely portrayed a person who was able to keep his emotions and composure in check even with a rifle pointed at his back. There are moments where he is quite clearly terrified, particularly during the climatic stand-off at the end as SEAL commanders prepare to kill the pirates with sniper rifles, but Greengrass keeps the attention on Phillips throughout and lets us witness his moments of stoicism. However, once Phillips has been rescued, with the blood of his captors on his face and clothes, the reality of what he has just gone through crashes down on him as he falls to bits. At first he is completely empty and can only stare blankly at the medic who is tasked with taking care of him. As she asks him routine questions about his health, Phillips seems dimly able to even process her simple queries, whilst he is trying to give an answer to what she is asking of him, he can't seem to find the energy or motivation to speak in any coherent manner. Then, after being frozen in fear and in an almost catatonic state, he finally starts to crumble - he snaps in and out of crying and asks whether his family have been told where he is, thanking the medic repeatedly. In my opinion it's the single most powerful moment in Hanks' career. 

“It’s a moment like I’ve never had making films.” - Tom Hanks (Quoted in Marlow, 2013) 

As audience members, we are used to seeing characters in action films who seem to be desensitised to violence around them, they either shrug off their own murders or they shrug off murders that they have witnessed, but Greengrass reminds us here that Phillips was a normal person in an extraordinary circumstance: "We felt there had to be a cathartic moment where you understood what the experience had meant” (Quoted in Stern, 2017), he has said. Credit has to go to the unprofessional actress in this scene, Danielle Albert, a real-life nurse who apparently was so star-struck that she froze and cried when she first saw Tom Hanks on set (understandable). Her performance is important because it allows the two to play off one another so well, the contrast between her calm professionalism and his utter distress does nothing but emphasise the state that he is in. It shows us the difference between people whose job requires them to become used to violent images vs regular people that can't comprehend what they have just witnessed. It's a culmination of the previous two hours, two hours that had been incredibly tense and largely fast paced being boiled down to a quiet two minute scene that explores the repercussions of what has just come before it.

"The actor’s job is to embody the truth. That’s what is there in that scene—the truth of vulnerability, shock, confusion, and all the things that you’d expect of an experience like that. There’s a shocking sense of humanity. You have to seize those moments… and Tom did.” - Paul Greengrass (Quoted in Meslow, 2013)

A League Of Their Own (Dir. Penny Marshall, 1992)

"There's a great deal of humanity in Penny's films, All of them touch you. She wants to make you feel the way she feels." - Elliot Abbott, producer (Quoted in Orenstein, 1992)

Hanks' only supporting role on this list, A League of their Own is a film that is, refreshingly about women. It's about women who are pushed to the foreground of the narrative that spend the runtime proving the men who doubt them wrong. Based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), it follows the females who filled the shoes of male baseball players after they went overseas to fight in WWII, and their struggle and eventual success to be recognised in the sport. Although a league is established, we are particularly on the side of a team called The Rockford Peaches, as a sibling rivalry develops between sisters Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty) who are both selected for the same team.

Much like Road To Perdition, A League of their Own is one of those rare instances where Hanks plays someone who may not be entirely sympathetic at the start. He pays Jimmy Dugan, a washed up, alcoholic ex-baseball player who agrees to take on a coaching job for the Rockford Peaches purely for the money. Rather than coach his players however, he tends to stumble onto the field, wave his hat to the crowd whilst mumbling swear words under his breath, to then retreat to his dugout and either pass out or scratch his balls for the duration of the game. At this point he's like many of the men in the small crowds that turn up to watch these matches; a cynic who doesn't see the people in this league as the talented baseball players that they are, but simply women who shouldn't be on a sports field. Slowly but surely, he comes to realise that his new profession gives him a second chance, as a once extremely talented professional baseball player himself who lost it all due to drinking, Jimmy's fresh vocation becomes something that he is both passionate about and talented at too.

Not only does he help to inspire the women he is working with, but he has matured enough to offer heartfelt emotional support to his team who now harbour a deep mutual respect for one another. In one heartbreaking scene in particular, Penny Marshall reminds us of the harsh reality of the time period the movie is set in when the pre-match jovial atmosphere is shattered by a telegram from the war department that arrives to inform one of the married ladies that their husband has been killed in action. Jimmy shoves away the incompetent and insensitive courier who insists that he must return to the post office after a mix-up leaves him unsure which woman in the room the telegram is meant for. Not wanting to leave his team in agonising suspense, Jimmy opens the telegram, tactfully and remorsefully delivering the terrible news himself. As he comforts the unconsolable Betty (Tracy Reiner) it's hard not to be reminded of how much this moment contrasts with the very first time that Jimmy entered the dressing room in a drunk stupor, and how much he has transformed since then. Like The Terminal, the film is a great example of how Hanks is talented in both drama and comedy; there are plenty of laughs to be had here in between these aforementioned sombre moments. 

A League of their Own undoubtedly belongs to the ladies in the film, but Hanks' progression from an arrogant has-been to a genial leader makes him as memorable as the women. He is more similar to the ladies at the start than he realises; he too is an outcast since his past actions have lost him the respect of those in the baseball industry; it's up to him prove his doubters wrong, just like the women have to. 

"I wasn't doing it just to do a women's picture. The problems as they're presented in the movie apply to both men and women. It's about not being afraid of your talents. It's a universal thing." - Penny Marshall (Quoted in ESPN, 2017)

Apollo 13 (Dir. Ron Howard, 1995)

"He was always very compelling in every scene... whenever he had something to do or say he was alive, he was interesting" - Ron Howard (Quoted in BAFTA, 2013)

While Hanks' character was finally able to reach his (admittedly more low key) dream in The Terminal, Ron Howard's Apollo 13 is the tale of a individual who fails to achieve his life's ambition, this was a prospect that one of Ron Howard's heroes, director Billy Wilder thought was an incredibly interesting and unique angle for a film to explore (Cited in Gary, 2003: 178). It tells the true story of the Apollo 13 space mission, as their intention of landing on the moon soon becomes a race against time to simply get back to Earth alive after an explosion on board leaves them with a host of problems: including high carbon dioxide levels and falling oxygen supplies that threatens the lives of the three on board: Jim Lovell (Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton). 

The media interest for the mission that picks up only after its revealed that the astronauts are in danger is reminiscent of the themes that were explored in Ace In The Hole (Wilder, 1951) and the macabre interest that seems to follow news only when it is negative. Ultimately though Apollo 13 is still a story of heroism and bravery, and the real tale of the resourcefulness of a group of people who had to overcome a monumental calamity with technology that Roger Ebert pointed out was less powerful than the computer that he was using to write his review of the film! The picture may have struck a nerve with some audiences who remembered witnessing the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster live on television in 1986; it could have served as a reminder of how space travel, while dangerous, is an example of the remarkable achievements that humanity is capable of.

Although the recent First Man (Chazelle, 2018) is much more intimate in its portrayal of a single man going into space (Apollo 13 is more concerned about showing others involved, such as mission control), both still tell personal stories about their main character. The success of bringing the men back to Earth was clearly the result of the cooperation of hundreds of different people, but to all intents and purposes, Hanks is the main character, and through him we are able to experience the collective disappointment that was felt all throughout NASA as the Apollo 13 mission failed to complete its mission. When the spacecraft Odyssey has to fly by the Moon without actually landing on it, Lovell watches his lifetime dream which is within reaching distance, pass behind him - and we understand the heartache that he must be feeling given that he has already revealed that this will be his last trip into space. Unlike with A League of their Own or The Burbs, there's nothing particularly flashy about how he plays his character (which was in-keeping with the level headedness of the real-life Lovell), but even when he is forced to raise his voice - it's to defuse and argument between his two colleagues; thereby acting as the reassuring and professional voice in the face of the disaster.

"It's inspirational yet we are talking about guys who didn't make it to the moon. It's inspirational because we are showing the potential of human kind. We are showing that it's possible not just to go to the moon but to also brings guys back when it seems like that's an impossibility" - Tom Hanks

Saving Private Ryan (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1998)

"I was trying very hard to imagine what actor would not immediately want to use his teeth to pull out a pin from a hand grenade. And Tom Hanks just sprung to mind." - Steven Spielberg (Quoted in Ebert, 1998)

As Spielberg's quote suggests, Hanks' everyman persona came into play again in his WWII epic Saving Private Ryan. In it he plays Captain Miller, a soldier in the European theatre of war who, after surviving the brutal Omaha beach landings at Normandy, is tasked (along with 7 others under his command) with finding the only surviving sibling of four men who have been killed in action, so that he may safely return home. Throughout the picture, the loss of Millers' men leaves the remaining squad members to question the sense in risking their own lives for the sake of one person.

Although Hanks plays Miller as someone who you would certainly want on your side in battle (he is quick and instrumental in organising his group of troops for the counter-attack on Omaha beach), he isn't immune to making mistakes. Whilst an experienced, authoritative and brave leader who cares deeply for his men, you get the sense that he feels incapable of carrying the weight and responsibility of commanding them on his shoulders. An extremely insightful interview that Ebert conducted with Spielberg explores this human concept - as we witness Millers' story, Ebert writes that 'we never feel we're watching a movie hero' (1998). Instead, the director wanted to shy away from 'traditional action heroes and toward the kinds of soldiers who actually did fight the war, not John Wayne, but English teachers from Pennsylvania' (Ebert, 1998). Much like with Captain Phillips, Spielberg doesn't forget that there is a psychological toll involved with violence. At the same time as carrying the guilt of the men who have died whilst he has been in command, Miller is equally concerned that his own killing of the enemy is stripping away his humanity: "With every man I kill the farther away from home I feel". It all leaves him to wonder whether his actions throughout his time fighting the war have changed him as a person so much that his wife will even recognise him when he returns home. A telling and understated moment that underlines how Miller is numbed to death and carnage comes during the scene when his team are looking through dog tags of deceased airborne troops to see if Ryan is amongst them. Miller is laughing along with his squad as they treat the dog tags like poker chips, throwing them around the table and in some instances mocking the ethnicity of the fallen based on their name. It's only after medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) steps in to explain how callous the men are being that Miller is struck with remorse at what he has just done and what he has become; leaving him to stare down at the dogtags and briefly reflect on how drastically the war has transformed him. 

Spielberg again plays on our perceptions of "nice guy" Tom Hanks when Miller refuses to take a small girl into the squad's care during the scene at Neuville. While his reasoning does make sense (taking her would put his men at risk and it's not part of the mission), the moment still grinds against our expectations of what we think our hero would do. Combat and the subsequent death of his men has corrupted Miller's morality to the point where he's forced to ignore what is right in a vain attempt to put a stop to any further casualties amongst the men in his care. Tragically, Miller's cautiousness is rewarded with nothing but more heartbreak for him and his fellow soldiers when Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is gunned down after ignoring the captain's orders. At every turn, Spielberg, Hanks and screenwriter Robert Rodat do an excellent job at portraying an individual faced with insurmountable pressure and impossibly difficult decisions.

Although clearly respected by his company, there is an air of mystery surrounding Miller and the relationship that he has with them. They don't really know anything about their leader and they even place bets secretly with each other on what they think his job in America was. Miller himself is reluctant to open himself up to them, perhaps because he feels that if he's distant and refuses to establish any kind of deep bond, the emotional pain that he'll experience if they're killed won't be as traumatic (as demonstrated with his initial lack of emotion at looking through the dogtags of men that he didn't know). In reality however, he feels the death of every person who has died under his watch because of the intense and personal journey he's shared with them. Having committed the numbers of deceased to memory, this number only tragically rises more and more as he goes about his mission. This is all what stops Miller from being a forgettable and generic character in what is an oversubscribed genre. He is an enigma to the audience during the first scenes on the Normandy landing crafts, but when Spielberg is building up the tension in preparation for the final battle in Ramelle, we know him so much more - he's a schoolteacher, not a superhero. By showing us a normal person who displays both flaws and heroism, Saving Private Ryan reminds us that WWII was fought by regular men who had normal jobs waiting for them back home, with combat training that couldn't hope to prepare them for what they were about to partake in. Nothing on screen can ever hope to make us truly feel what these men went through of course, but Spielberg is excellent at showing us the disorientation and vulnerability of the troops in every single battle scene. By utilising Janusz KamiƄski's desaturated cinematography, he de-glamorises everything we see to give the film a level of realism that is as close as we would ever want to come to war ourselves.

"Larger-than-life characters make up about .01 percent of the world's population...We won the war because of ordinary guys who did the right thing at the right time." - Tom Hanks (Quoted in Ebert, 1998)

The 'Burbs (Dir. Joe Dante, 1989)

"Making that movie was one of my favorite experiences and, despite its initially unimpressive critical reception, it has lived on the become something of a touchstone for fans of ’80s comedy. It has a lot of fans." - Joe Dante (Quoted in Cowan, 2016)

If I had to select one film that optimises Hanks' knack for straight out comedy, it would be Joe Dante's The 'Burbs, a film that was a critical flop on release but is probably my most re-watched film of his career. In this comedy-horror, he plays Ray Peterson, a typical suburbanite living on a cul-de-sac who becomes convinced that his mysterious next door neighbours, The Klopeks, are up to something sinister. 

Taking an often hilarious dig at small town America, The Burbs is a somewhat overlooked film in Hanks' career that actually has so much to love, with some particular moments from him being an absolute joy to watch. There are instances such as the beer can crushing scene, or the moment at the end when his impatience at the lack of helpful paramedics leads Ray to throw a gurney into the back of an ambulance, when you realise what a superb physical comedy performer he is. (And, lest we forget, the incredible few seconds where he slides down a set of steps after being blown up - "I don't think I could do that today without twisting an ankle", Hanks has said). Given that Ray is initially the straight man who doesn't believe his friend's suspicions about The Klopeks, it makes his freakout scenes all the more amusing because you get the impression all along that his bumbling mates and their crazy theories are setting him on the verge of some kind of a comical breakdown - he's very much the stand in for the audience one again. 

Jerry Goldsmith's eclectic score is another delight, in which he spoofs his own music from Patton and even incorporates a spaghetti western style track belonging to Ennio Morricone which plays when two of our 'heroic' main characters build up the courage to ring The Klopeks' door bell. It's a great subtle nod to the film's promotional poster which depicted Hanks in his dressing gown clutching a hose and spatula as if he's engaged in some kind of stand-off against a gunslinger in the wild west. This way in which the mundanity of the suburban setting in 'The Burbs clashes with the nightmarish surreal elements of its actual plot are superbly realised in both this music and the poster and they are both great signifiers of how the bizarre and humorous were to blend together in the picture. I can't talk about the score however without mentioning the 'uplifting' track of the movie that we hear over the end cast credits, because it's probably one of the most joyful pieces of music that I've heard (which I am usually whistling to myself for days on end after rewatching the film). It's somewhat of an oddity amongst the other eccentric tracks featured in the movie but perhaps that's the point, it's a friendly and jovial piece that we first hear a variation of when we're introduced to the cul-de-sac, and then at the end when the story is all is said and done - before and after this seemingly unremarkable community is turned upside down. 

The ensemble cast too is a real treat, including Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman and Bruce Dern who all have their moments to shine with extremely funny lines, but the star of the show is Rick Ducommun as 'Art'. He's a human dustbin that, when not rudely emptying the contents of Ray's fridge into his own stomach, is feeding Hanks' paranoia about their cryptic neighbours and convincing him to pursue his suspicions further. They make a great pair, and much of the laughter comes from the interactions between these two men, as Ray's exasperation at Art's behaviour reaches breaking point at several points throughout. 

"That [filming The 'Burbs] was fun. It was really a story about a guy that should have gone on vacation. This is not a story about horrible things, this is a story about a man who should have packed the car and driven away from his house...we laughed an awful lot on set." - Tom Hanks (Quoted in Hewitt, 2015)

Honorable mentions

The Green Mile (Darabont, 1999)

Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, 1994)

Philadelphia (Demme, 1993)

Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2000)

Road To Perdition (Mendes, 2002)


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