Tom Hanks is one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. He made his first impressions in the 1980s with comedic roles that were sweet and compelling. In the 1990s, he gave us several films that have achieved classic status. While it has been some time since he has received the awards he earned 15-20 years ago, he is still a pleasure to watch. Recently, he returned to the big screen in the little known Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Looking back, these are the top five films of Hanks’ career.
Highlights: Tom Hanks
By Jason Barney
July 11, 2012
1) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Tom Hanks already had several blockbusters and awards behind him when he teamed up with Steven Spielberg to create the greatest war movie ever made. Saving Private Ryan is Tom Hanks at his best, portraying a flawed but compelling character in history’s worst struggle. He plays Captain John Miller and movie fans are given a performance they will never forget. Saving Private Ryan is a very special film.
It starts off with the American ships approaching the coast of France during the D-Day invasion. Miller’s men are on one of the landing craft and audiences are on edge of their seats. The opening half hour of this classic is gruesome and in your face with the violence, but none of it comes across as over the top or unnecessary due to Hanks’ acting ability. As his character is thrown about on the beaches of Normandy and his men are torn to shreds, everybody watching is forced to realize that U.S. soldiers actually experienced the on screen carnage.
Most of Miller’s unit survives the opening day of the invasion, but fate and the U.S. Army have a special mission in store for them. Due to a compassionate rule about one family not suffering too many deaths during war time, Miller’s squad is sent to retrieve Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose brothers have all been killed. Miller’s men immediately think the mission isn’t worth it. They don’t want to put their lives on the line for some random soldier.
As they begin their search, the cruelties of war take over. They suffer casualties, fight off exhaustion, deal with horrible weather, and start to fray at the edges. The men continue on grudgingly, and watchers are drawn into Hank’s masterful performance. Miller’s unit follows him because they trust and believe in him. Viewers are drawn in because they can see World War II unfolding before their eyes.
Hanks is particularly good when showing his character’s nervous shaking hands. He comes across as vulnerable and human while carrying the weight of the war on his shoulders. Also, before the lead up to the climax, the soldiers all know a difficult battle is in front of them. Hanks is superb, keeping his command presence, maintaining his relationship with his fellow soldiers, and holding onto his sanity. In one touching scene his fellow soldiers are talking about female exploits, and he declines talking about his wife trimming the rose bushes, as that story, that shred of reality, is the life he wants to return to more than ever. It is just for him.
Memorable for its vivid action and intense battle scenes, Saving Private Ryan is Tom Hanks at his best.
2) Forrest Gump (1994)
One of Hanks most amazing performances is Forrest Gump. From the opening scenes, with a feather floating wonderfully through air, Forrest Gump allows us all to think about life, to contemplate possibilities, and to just slow down. How often do we watch a film and realize that any of us would trade our life for those experiences of perceived simpleton? That is part of the power of this one. It is told with a frame story that has Forrest sitting on a public park bench, just thinking about his life through innocent and disadvantaged eyes.
The tale starts out with his childhood in the 1950s, where we learn Gump was vulnerable from the start. Compared to other children he is a bit challenged, and physically he is so limited he must wear braces on his ankles. Through his limitations we see little Forrest responsible, in a very intriguing way, for some of the dance moves of one Elvis Presley. Audiences laugh and are amazed at the same time, even as one of the other students asks him if he is “stupid or something?”
As the film progresses, the frame story has the present day Forrest pleasantly interacting on the park bench, recollecting his life story. To the other people waiting at the bus stop, it is almost background noise, to Forrest it is just part of the moment.
Another example of the random goodness and luck in the character is a scene where former school fellows bully him. Forrest bolts away, fleeing so fast he gets noticed by a university football coach, thus allowing him to go to college. The film is full of this innocent time machine magic. Other remarkable scenes include Gump meeting Kennedy in a hilarious interaction, serving time in Vietnam and saving his entire squad, meeting President Johnson in another great sequence, and hosts of others.
As the background sequences shift to the 1970s, Gump continues to have odd but touching interactions with famous historical events. In a roundabout way, he is responsible for bringing down the Nixon Administration, and he competes in high level ping pong tournament. One of the most touching parts of the film is Gump’s relationship with Lt. Dan, (Gary Sinise) who was wounded during his service in Vietnam. Gump was always the one with the disadvantage, but when Lt. Dan struggles with his own scars and wounds, Forrest‘s simple world view is the best medication.
In one of the film’s most memorable transitions, events move to the late 1970s and early 80s. Gump sports an unshaven, grungy look and runs across the country. “Run Forrest, Run” is movie quote that is now part of national dialogue.
Forest Gump is such a successful film because of its messages about life. In a world overwhelmed with complex gadgets, selfishness, and instant satisfaction, it is even better to watch now than when it first came out. It is a nice reminder that beauty and everyday life don’t always have to be looked for, sometimes they are around us in every moment. This realization wouldn’t have been possible without Hanks’ strong performance.
Audiences and critics agreed, as Forrest Gump was the rare film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and Tom Hanks came away with the Oscar for Best Actor.
3) Apollo 13 (1995)
This is perhaps Hanks’ only film that fits the science fiction genre, and it is a masterpiece. It is a once a in a decade picture where the audience knows almost every single thing that is going to happen and they still walk away impressed. Hanks teamed with Ron Howard for this one.
He plays astronaut Jim Lovell, who, as the space program runs into budget cuts and suffers from technical difficulties, does not know if he will get his chance to go to the moon. The first several minutes set the stage nicely with the hope, anxiety, and competitive spirit of the astronauts. They understand this is their shot, that only a handful of men have done what they are striving to accomplish. Hanks is uplifting and committed in his role as family man and wannabe moonwalker.
Even before the mission starts, Hanks is commanding. The best example of this is the scene where doctors inform one of his crew, Ken Mattingly, (Gary Sinise) that he has recently been exposed to the measles, preventing his presence on the mission. In a very complex interaction, based on the safety of the other men involved, Miller informs Mattingly it was his call. The seriousness between friends and professionals was very well portrayed on screen.
When Apollo 13 does take off and things do start to go wrong, Hanks is superb, showing Lovell’s command instincts taking over. First, when all hell breaks loose and the rocket is spinning out of control, his wide eyes portray a measured balance between the knowledge his life is at risk and relying on his training to make decisions. In perhaps one of the best acted scenes in the movie, the crew of Apollo 13 realizes part of their craft is effectively useless, and they must transfer everything to another section. As air and power seep away, and his crew reports on how long the process to move will take, Hanks’ utters the memorable line, “We may not have that much time.” In his precise delivery of those words, Hanks wasn’t making an observation, he was giving an order.
One of the other memorial things about Apollo 13 is the quality of the overall cast involved. Ed Harris plays Gene Kranz, in command of mission control. Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton are along for the ride as other members of the Apollo 13 crew. Kathleen Quinlan gives a very strong performance as Jim Lovell’s wife.
Several different film organizations gave the pic the respect it deserves by nominating it and the cast members involved for numerous awards. The most notable nominations by the Academy awards were for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. The Screen Actors Guild gave the film the award for Outstanding Cast.
The only problem with Apollo 13 is that doing a sequel was impossible.
4) Philadelphia (1993)
There are few roles in the lifetime of an actor that transform careers. Prior to this Hanks had delivered his staple cute comedies. Big and Sleepless in Seattle were great for him, but he also was in the phase of Joe Versus the Volcano and The Burbs. When Philadelphia came out in 1993 it transformed his career. Much of what Tom Hanks will be remembered for will be because of Philadelphia.
It was as unlikely a transformation for him as Philadelphia was to be a widely successful picture. His work, and the heartfelt tale of a man who grapples with discrimination because of his homosexuality and exposure to the AIDS virus, come together for one of the actor’s very best performances. Audiences fell in love it despite being about a topic most people didn’t want to acknowledge in a time when homosexuality was viewed much differently. In a surprising display of viewer approval, Philadelphia cost $24 million to make, but brought in three times its budget just in within the United States. When worldwide grosses were tabulated, it had collected well over $200 million.
Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a competent and successful lawyer with very good career at a Philadelphia law firm. As the film progresses, we see him as a normal employee, driven and good at his job. The director gives close-ups of Beckett’s face, and we see the AIDS related legions on his skin. He has made the decision to keep his situation private, not making his law firm aware of his lifestyle or disease. When they find out, he is terminated in a very backhanded way.
From this point on, Beckett relies on a rival lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to bring his case to court. His partner, Miguel Alvarez, (Antonio Banderas) comes across as loving, devoted, and no different than any family member or partner. The deterioration of Beckett during the case is real and sad, and Washington’s character is a great prism by which viewers must question their own prejudices. His associations with Beckett, which challenge his preconceived notions about homosexuality and AIDS, are very pleasant to watch. Of particular note is a scene at Beckett’s house, where he reveals his love of opera, and Miller realizes the humanity of the man.
The courtroom scenes are intense, but not overdone. As a successful nod to the director, it is extremely sad watching the AIDS virus take its toll on Andrew Beckett. Hanks’ ability to communicate innocence, physical pain, and a real sense of having been wronged show acting ability above most others in the business.
Critics agreed, as Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for best Actor in 1993. His work was so memorable that the American Film Institute included his Beckett character in its top 100 heroes list. This was a defining role for him, and allowed many of the other famous works later in his career to be possible.
5) Toy Story 3 (2010)
This one is full of magic and has something for everyone. Animated movies are usually made for kids, but during the entire summer movie season of 2010 adults brought their kids to see Toy Story 3 and fell in love with it. From the opening scene, where the legendary characters of Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and the rest of the gang are part of Andy’s imagination, this one is full of thought provoking ideas about time, growing up, relationships, and aging.
Pixar delivers a most memorable tale of Andy’s childhood coming to an end. He is 18-years-old and is about to go to college. Departing his family’s home, he must decide what things to take with him. His mom and little sister want him to throw out everything he doesn’t need, Andy decides to keep his toys stashed away in the attic. In a freak happenstance, they get thrown out. And American families are given a real treat.
Tom Hanks as Woody is magnificent. While his voice is tense and high strung because of the situation the toys find themselves in, he is also convincing and the leader of the pack. He struggles to persuade the others that Andy still loves them, that he wasn’t letting go; even as they accept their new roles at the Sunnyside Daycare.
Toy Story 3 has some truly memorable scenes, some of the best in the franchise. Of particular note is when Woody’s friends believe they are going to be played with by loving, caring kids in the daycare. As the youngsters come in from recess, their play time is dominated by a bunch of little monsters. Bumps, bruises, and broken pieces result. Also, in a scene which truly made fans of Buzz Lightyear squirm, his reset button gets pushed. The maturity of the climax of film cannot go unmentioned. Where kids are dazzled by the colors and movement on the screen, parents connect with the relationships and meaning of it all.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things about Toy Story 3 is its ability to return viewers of all ages to their childhoods. Kids play with the passion and energy displayed and find themselves captivated. Parents can’t help remembering back to the youthful time when life was simple, when play was real, not a memory.
And none of this is possible without the contributions of Tom Hanks’ voice. Woody is an appealing character, his love of his formative years reminds us all of playgrounds, childhood excitement, and letting go. His voice is key; his performance leads all who are old enough to ponder the question…will there be a Toy Story 4?
As a measure of how successful this pic was, it was the highest grossing film of 2010. Toy Story 3 received the Academy Award for Best Animated film. It was also in contention at the Academy Awards for Best Picture, a rare accomplishment for an animated film.