For over 30 years, Tom Hanks has been one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars — the quintessential Dad. But that simple likability camouflages the political potency of Hanks and the brand of white, middle-class Dad he’s come to represent.
When Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for Philadelphia in 1994 — playing the role of a lawyer with AIDS who fights back when his firm unlawfully fires him — the standing ovation was immediate. Even his competitors (Liam Neeson, who’d been nominated for Schindler’s List, and Anthony Hopkins, up for Howards End) stood and hugged him on his way to the podium. Hanks clutched the Oscar, looked up to the balcony, and began a well-practiced speech.
“Here’s what I know,” he declared, before talking about the perfection of his “lover” (Rita Wilson) and the impact of his high school drama teacher and classmate, both of whom are gay. “I wish my babies could have the same sort of teachers, the same sort of friends,” he explained, “and therein lies my dilemma tonight: I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets in heaven are too crowded with angels.”
Hanks was referring to the victims of AIDS — and the fact that playing one, in the throes of death, defying discrimination, is what won him the Oscar. He continued by saying he hoped that the grace of the creator “cools their fevers,” “heals their skin,” and “allows their eyes to see the simple self-evident truth, that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all,” one that “was written down on paper, by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia 200 years ago.” The tears welling up in his eyes threatened to spill over, but he finished with a steady gaze: “God bless you all, God have mercy on us all, and God bless America.”
Like Philadelphia, the speech was celebrated as a paragon of progressiveness — no matter that he didn’t say the word “AIDS,” or that his call wasn’t for others to accept gay people, but for the gay people in heaven to understand that they should have been treated like humans when they were on earth. And while it’s easy to critique the ham-fisted attempts on the part of straight white people, 30 years ago, to figure out how to feel and act about gay people and the disease that was killing them en masse, the speech reflects the altruism and sincerity that has come to reside at the heart of the Tom Hanks image.
It’s that feeling of goodness that gets Hanks repeatedly compared to Jimmy Stewart, and which earned him the designation of Best Hollywood Star in 2015 — his fifth win since 2002. It’s what makes him the apotheosis of the goofy dad, the most inoffensive and unscandalous and overwhelmingly likable star in a business built on assholery.
To call Hanks “a classic Dad” is to speak of a specific, goofy, white middle-class Dad — a trope built on the pillars of white privilege, asexual masculinity, and nostalgia for a straightforward history of great men. It’s a place of spectacular safety, of seeming simplicity and straightforwardness. That Dad is also a Boomer Dad — who, like Hanks, came of age in the ’80s, ruled the ’90s, and who could still do little wrong in the 2000s. And today, that Dad is exhausted: Trying to keep up with multiculturalism and globalism and new understandings of what it means to be a good guy, it’s all so much.
Most Dads — the trope insists again and again — are idealized, if embarrassing: Dadness might have voted for George W. Bush; maybe Dadness even put on blackface for a Sammy Davis Jr. costume in the late ’80s. Dadness stopped saying “the gays” only relatively recently. But Dadness isn’t bigoted — Dadness is nothing if not well-intentioned, though those intentions are often firmly centered on the known parameters of its own existence.
In this way, Hanks’ image, his Dadness, is much like that of whiteness: eliding its own existence as an identity, thereby camouflaging the ways it wields power and steers the status quo. And like whiteness, people seldom question Tom Hanks’ success, his dominance, his choices: It’s just the way it is.
Hanks remains one of our most beloved and successful stars not by representing the new, however, but by embodying the flabby, comforting middle. Which isn’t to condemn him so much as to situate his success — something that his ostensible normalness has largely exempted him from. For one of the most important stars of the last 30 years, he’s astonishingly untheorized; his appeal, much like that of the Dad, has either been chalked up to sheer likability or ignored as benign. But that which doesn’t seem powerful or political is often potently so.
Most people understand Hanks through one of his iconic roles. Depending on your age, it might be Big, or Forrest Gump, or Cast Away. But to understand how Hanks arrived on his throne of peak Dadness and all that it represents, you have to go back to the early ’80s, when Hanks himself was just a young Dad. Back then, he was known only for his leading role in the sitcom Bosom Buddies, in which he played Buffy — one of two best friends who spent half their lives dressed as women so as to live in an all-women’s apartment building —and in which cross-dressing was played, as was typical at the time, for laughs. He was a young New Yorker on the take, living it up and hitting on women — he just happened to spend half of his life in dresses. That fraternity masculinity mixed with physical comedy would go on to become the heart of Hanks’ ’80s appeal — though at the time he didn’t quite know how to harness it.
In 1988, Newsweek would declare that Hanks “was good from the beginning, and everybody knew it” and that “even people who didn’t like the show liked him.” But Hanks struggled to find work after Bosom Buddies. As producer Brian Grazer recalled, when he came in to audition for Splash, he had “everything at stake […] They wouldn’t even let him read for Police Academy.” Chevy Chase, Michael Keaton, and John Travolta had already turned down the role. But Hanks walked into the audition in jeans, construction boots, and a work shirt — and amazed Grazer and Ron Howard, who was set to direct: “I’ve seen thousands of actors read for parts,” Grazer said in 1987, “and I’ve never seen anyone who looked as if he felt as comfortable with himself.”
That comfort, and its byproduct, confidence, helped sell the story of man who falls in love with a mermaid, and formed the basis for his image as “normal guy thrust into abnormal situation,” a premise that, at least in the ‘80s, always involved women. He had, as the Washington Post put it, “a slightly harassed, gently sarcastic air” about him; he was a little rude, a little manic, a little bit of a turd.
Hanks rode the $69 million success of Splash to a slew of quick-hit pictures: amplifying his rascality in Bachelor Party, which Hanks would later call “a sloppy rock-and-roll comedy that has tits in it”; The Man With One Shoe, which disappeared after an anemic $8 million gross; the bonkers Money Pit and forgettable Nothing in Common and the easy appeal of Dragnet, a remake of the classic ’60s television show that paired Hanks with Dan Aykroyd. He was making films at a ridiculous pace, in part, as he was later quick to admit, because he said yes to everything — he’d been poor for so long that everything looked great, even the stinkers. Esquire went so far as to call them the “largely inconsequential Glib Years.”
Somewhere in the middle of that glibness Hanks also made 1985’s Volunteers, playing an Ivy League douche who flees his gambling debts by going into the Peace Corps only to fall in love with Beth, played by future wife Rita Wilson. It’s a classic ’80s comedy, which is to say it has a thin, vaguely thought-through premise, and is heavily reliant on racist jokes and tropes of varying degrees of explicitness. But it also put Hanks in three-piece suits — “I play a very cool guy with a Bostonian accent and I’m dressed real nice,” as Hanks put it— which, along with his wise-cracking personality, prompted the widespread comparisons to Cary Grant. “A youthful avatar of romantic comedy,” a Rolling Stone profile declared, “the rightful heir to Cary Grant.”
That idea was solidified by an Esquire cover story that paired a photo of Hanks in white pants, a blue suit coat, and a handkerchief with the promise to teach readers ‘How to Look Like a Page Out of Esquire.’ Inside, Hanks is dressed in more Waspy outfits, leering at women whose faces are carefully obscured. In the profile, he admits that when he goes to the men’s clothing store, he requests “a suit like Lieutenant Castillo wears on Miami Vice.” It all feels rather lecherous — and the opposite of what we’ve come to associate with Hanks today.
The positioning of Hanks as a sex symbol felt wrong, in part because Hanks-on-the-prowl required accessing the part of the average-looking guy who’s bitter that he doesn’t, in fact, look like Cary Grant. Leering Hanks also wasn’t drawing audiences in nearly the way it used to. Hanks knew that, or at least knew that the Cary Grant comparisons were wrong. As he told People, “I’d most like to be like Jimmy Stewart.” He hated the Esquire photo shoot, the look of which he later described as “sleazy French golf pro.” And he was increasingly sick of playing the sly, the put-upon, the exasperated. He complained that critics had taken to introducing their reviews with “Here’s Tom Hanks being another smart-ass jerk.”
Hanks knew he didn’t look like a traditional movie star. He said he had a “bizarre body,” with “a big ass and fat thighs,” “a goofy-looking nose, ears that hang down, eyes that look like I’m part Chinese and are a funny color,” “really small hands and feet, long limbs, narrow shoulders, and a gut I’ve got to keep watching,” and hair that “makes me look like a Talmudic scholar.” Not looking the part, however, gave Hanks an air of reliability, of what film scholars have termed the “Average Joe” — a role that he had periodically leaned into while saying yes to every film in sight, but never so deeply, so perfectly, as in 1988’s Big.
In playing a boy who finds himself in a man’s body, Hanks matured as well. The goofy boyness didn’t go away — there he was munching on mini-corn, gargling chocolate sauce, and calling top bunk when Elizabeth Perkins asked if they were going to have a sleepover — but all the lechery was stripped away. There were no more attempts to capture the knowingness of Grant; instead, Hanks settled into the moonfaced wonder of Stewart. And it helped make Big one of the biggest hits of the year, grossing a massive $151 million worldwide.
Big rebooted Hanks’ career and turned him into a bona fide movie star. But he was anxious that his image was becoming overdetermined with niceness: When he made the cover of Newsweek, he hated that the cover image was one of him smirking. “There are some really nice, handsome photographs of me,” he said, “and they used the one where I’ve got this goofy look on my face.” The Newsweek profile — like a gig hosting Saturday Night Live that also riffed heavily on his nice-guy-ness — was ostensibly promoting Punchline, a difficult film about a med student turned aspiring stand-up comedian. But audiences wanted Big Hanks, and the movie, despite winning positive reviews, proved a disappointment at the box office.
Sitting for a Playboy interview in March 1989, Hanks comes off as both frustrated with and resigned to his image. “I think they confused my not caring about a lot of things with being nice. I just show up for these things — photo shoots and stuff — and say ‘Hi, what do you want me to do?’ They get to do whatever they want and I don’t care about whatever they want and I don’t care what clothes they put on me or anything like that. But it’s not like I’m being a nice guy — I simply don’t care. Life’s too short to worry about that.” When asked why the word “vulnerable” comes up in articles about him, he replied, “Fine, great. Vulnerable. Also: ‘He appears so crushable.’ Yeah, fine. I don’t know anybody who isn’t.”
Hanks knew how other people wanted to see him, but he didn’t know if he liked it himself: thus the half-assery of Turner & Hooch, a massive hit in which he’s paired with a slobbering dog, but for which, he recalled thinking, “We just worked ourselves into the grave, and in the end, I thought, ‘Did I really work this hard and invest all this care for a movie called Turner & Hooch?’”
There was The Burbs, in which Hanks faces off against suburbia — with a poster that proclaimed, “A comedy about one nice guy who got pushed too far” — and Joe Versus the Volcano, which is essentially the same idea filtered through something like a film student’s senior thesis. Volcano somehow grossed $39 million and has, today, become a cult classic in its badness. But at the time, it was sign of Hanks’ potential slowly seeping from him. That idea was ratified in what Hanks and others agree to be the nadir of his career: Bonfire of the Vanities.
Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s blockbuster novel of the same name, Vanities was the classic ’80s novel, brimming with greed and casual racism and unconscionable lacks of self-awareness, the way Wall Street had become the classic ’80s movie. But just because it sold over 14 million copies doesn’t mean that its film adaptation would automatically resonate when it arrived in theaters in 1990: As one review put it, “Reagan’s not president, bond salesmen aren’t masters of the universe, and there’s a black mayor in New York City.” Hanks was playing what one profiler called a “fey and desperate Master of the Universe,” and people hated him in the role. The film grossed just $15 million on a $47 million budget, and became the punching bag of Hollywood, tanking Hanks’ career in the process.
Hanks initially defended the movie, along with the rest of his post-Big choices. “I don’t have any agenda, any plan, or any template to gauge myself by,” he told the Toronto Star. “At best, I just hope I don’t repeat myself.” But in an Esquire profile from 2001, he would look back with disdain at the time period, with Bonfire serving as the “apogee” of all the “pussy-work” he’d done over the course of the ’80s. “He was a pussy from the beginning and a pussy all the way through,” Hanks said of his character. “He was just a big fat pussy.”
That profile, titled “Tom Hanks Acts Like a Man,” declared itself to be the “true story of an American optimist whose life began when he decided to stop being such a weenie.” It gives Hanks’ career the feel of the biopic: If the ’80s were the climbing action, then Bonfire was the midpoint reversal, the disaster that sparks his manly redemption.
He told his agent that he didn’t know what he wanted to do so much as what he didn’twant to do: “I don’t want to play pussies anymore. I don’t want to explore how difficult it is to have relationships at the age of thirty-two,” he said. Instead, “I want to play men who have experienced bitter compromise in their lives and try to deal with the one damn thing after another of what our lives are.” No matter that, like a Dad, he never really got the hot girls, or the big guns, or any other chance to wield the phallus — he was a Man.
That period of Man Hanks started off sputteringly: There was A League of Their Own, in which Hanks took the role of a lovable alcoholic overweight asshole, thereby attracting men to what was otherwise a women’s picture. The next year, he played what might be called a pussy, but a lovable one, not a despicable one, in Sleepless in Seattle. The two films were monster hits — grossing $132 million and $227 million, respectively — but in hindsight, they were just stepping-stones on the way to Serious Hanks, Man Hanks, Dad Hanks, all the Hankses that would coalesce into the Hanks image we understand today.
Cue Philadelphia, a film that addressed straight audiences in their ambivalence about both gay people and AIDS by taking the underlying fact of homosexuality — that is to say, sexual preference, and the sex that results from it — out of the film. As one journalist who reported on the AIDS crisis during the time told me, “Philadelphia wasn’t a movie for a gay people — it was to try to get straight people to care about AIDS.” And like the string of movies that would define the next 10 years of Hanks’ career, it was a highly hedged piece of liberal propaganda, an “extremely well-made message picture about tolerance, justice, and discrimination,” as Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety.
In truth, there’s very little to distinguish Hanks’ character in Philadelphia from the Good Men he was to play over the next decade: He’s a fundamentally good-hearted person, surrounded by people who love him, trying to do the right thing, even though it’s hard.
Hanks was quick to defend the fact that sex had been drained from the film, explaining that the couple, who’d been together for over a decade, were in their “sex once a week” phase, which meant that their chaste cuddling was just their relationship’s status quo. He grew weary of people asking him if he was scared he’d sink his career, but disavowed any political motive and declined all requests to become involved with AIDS organizations. “I took the part because I’m a very selfish actor and I want to work on good material and good stories with good people,” he told the Toronto Star in a profile that later assured readers that Hanks was an “unabashed heterosexual” who was married with three children. “I’m probably the least politically active guy around,” he said. “I just saw a good, timely story that, if we did it accurately — if we did it correctly — would capture what it’s like to be living in America in 1993.”
The film is not documentary, of course: For all of its swelling score, it remains what the Sunday Times calls “the first tragic feel good film” — a “tearjerker you can feel good crying at.” It’s a type of film that’s become deeply familiar to audiences, in large part through Hanks’ work, but at the time, this sort of soft political film was largely a novelty: It was tragic, but it was triumph; you felt bad because someone died, or suffered, or was discriminated against, but you still had enough distance to not feel it too deeply, just deeply enough to feel good about yourself and your identification with the forces of good (read: ’90s Clinton-esque liberalism) in the movie, not the forces of evil (read: passé bigotry).
Hanks would later pride himself on not taking roles in any superhero-type good versus evil film, but Philadelphia, like Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Toy Story, Saving Private Ryan,The Green Mile, and Cast Away are absolutely about good versus evil; it’s just that goodness doesn’t have the benefit of a gun or a superhero power. He has a support team — Hanks’ mother in Forrest Gump, actual astronauts in Apollo 13, an assortment of inept toys in Toy Story, a ragtag bunch of exhausted soldiers in Saving Private Ryan, the “good” inmates in The Green Mile, Wilson in Cast Away — some of which are more supportive, or sentient, than others. But the narrative is always his; the moral center, the point of empathy, is his. And through his gravity, his righteousness becomes our own.
Of course, that’s the role of the movie star in the American drama — but few, if any, movie stars have played that role so consistently, and to such success, as Hanks. Each film was more than a hit; these were bona fide blockbusters: $206 million worldwide gross for Philadelphia, $677 million for Forrest Gump, $355 for Apollo 13, $373 million for Toy Story, $481 million for Saving Private Ryan, $497 million for Toy Story 2, $286 million for The Green Mile, and $429 million for Cast Away. There were small deviations from the path: for Hanks’ first time directing, and playing a supporting role, in That Thing You Do! (which grossed just $34 million) and reuniting with Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail (a whopping $250 million worldwide — bonkers money for a rom-com).
Offscreen, Hanks largely remained a blank slate. His marriage to Wilson had gained a higher profile when he mentioned her in his Oscar speech — and as her own career began to accelerate, including a lead role in Now and Then — but Hanks maintained an aura of fierce privacy around his family. He told George magazine that his two children with Wilson were named “Chucklehead and Pumpkinface,” and said little about his children from his first marriage, save to assure readers that his visits with them were regular.
For all the emotion he evoked onscreen, he managed to close himself off in a cheery way that will be familiar to many children of boomer parents. Director Nicholas Meyer observed that Hanks “would do anything you’d ask him, but he wasn’t prepared to reveal himself as human being.” He had few friends, and his ties to his own parents and siblings were loose. But he was enthralled by Wilson’s side of the family, who’d escaped from Communist Bulgaria and Albania — the exact sort of bravery absent from the story of his own parents, whose lives, as he recalled in numerous interviews, lacked direction or purpose.
The films from this period were all deeply ’90s, either in setting and concern (the AIDS crisis of Philadelphia, the far-reaching effects of the internet on our lives in You’ve Got Mail, an overworked “productivity engineer” for FedEx, aka the harbinger of globalization) or the obsession with and nostalgia for white-guy history (Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, That Thing You Do!). Even Toy Story is, at heart, a story about how kids forsake the old, analog toys for the new, internationally produced, multilingual digital ones. And then there were his HBO production projects: From the Earth to the Moon (which, with a budget of $68 million, was the most expensive series produced to date), Band of Brothers, and The Pacific.
Like the massive history tomes that Hanks talked about like biblical texts in interviews, they were Dad-bait: hyper-detailed explorations of a time they had not experienced, but for whose straightforward simplicity they nonetheless pined for. These were horrible times, everyone was in pain, everyone was unhappy — but it was a time of Great Sacrifice, and, by extension, Great Men. It was a stark contrast to whose own generation, whose “great national consciousness” was experiencing rock-and-roll culture: “Not hugely demanding of us from the point of sacrifice,” he told The New Yorker in 1998. So he’d decided, at some point in the ’90s, to take on films only if they “plumb the mystery” of life and pass his “Four E’s” litmus test, which declared that a film “entertain, educate, enlighten, and enthrall.” These films did them all — in bold, in italics, in all caps.
“Hanks maintains a contract with audiences,” the San Jose Mercury News declared. “If they show up, he’ll give them something worthwhile and life-affirming to watch.” But for all of the eagerness to “show up” and have Hanks affirm your life, few of these films — save, perhaps, Toy Story, reward rewatching. They’re slogs, or their soundtrack-as-history approach comes across as ham-fisted and trite. They’re like a once-perfect piece of fruit: delicious at first bite, then, left to its own devices, it begins to rot and ferments, and, before you know it, your mouth is sour, sticky, and filled with regrets.
If you think that’s a blasphemous statement, you haven’t watched Forrest Gump recently, or realized that You’ve Got Mail is essentially a story of catfishing, or remembered the Cast Away is a brilliant piece of product placement, or that all the World War II narratives, for all of their emotional heft, their commitment to the complications of war, still focus on the telling the same stories of the same people who’ve always had their stories told.
If the first phase of Hanks’ career comprised “the pussy years,” and the 1990s were the “man years,” then in 2001, at the age of 45, Hanks began the third phase of his career — not a midlife crisis so much as an exhaustive commitment to reinvention. He took his first nonhero role in Road to Perdition, played second fiddle in Catch Me If You Can, tried to work with beloved weirdos the Coen brothers in Ladykillers, returned to the quietly morose moral center in The Terminal, allowed himself to become a member of the CGI uncanny valley in The Polar Express, and signed on for what would become his first noncartoon franchise, playing a historian with a horrible haircut in the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. He provided voiceover for Ken Burns’ The War. A Forbessurvey named him the “Most Trusted Celebrity” of 2006, aka the person whose voiceover in a commercial will most compel you to buy a car.
There was another significant change: His pace began to slow. There’d been an entire year between Polar Express and The Da Vinci Code; another between Charlie Wilson’s War, a history of the classic Hanks sort with Julia Roberts in a blonde wig, and Angels and Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code that grossed a disappointing $485 million — just over half of the business of the first film. In 2010, Toy Story 3 became the first Hanks product to gross over a billion; the next year, he returned to the director’s chair for Larry Crowne, a sweetly intentioned PG of a rom-com that pairs Hanks with Julia Roberts and romanticizes the plight of a man who goes back to community college after getting laid off. Its problems were similar to those that plagued That Thing You Do!: Under Hanks’ direction, narratives become the least potent versions of their possible selves.
Larry Crowne was also emblematic of an increasing problem with Hanks films: They felt out of time, as if they belonged in a different era. Not in a “this is a classic for all ages!” way, but in a “Dad, those pleated Dockers are so 1997” way. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was the sort of melodramatic rendering of grief that would have done well in the ’90s, especially if Hanks, instead of Sandra Bullock, were the lead. Cloud Atlas(2012) was like an even more postmodern version of Total Recall; Saving Mr. Banks was classic Disney self-mythologizing goodness; Bridge of Spies was a Spielberg war movie that could have been made once every decade of the last 60.
None of these films flopped, but none resonated the way a Hanks film did in the past. The sole exception was Captain Phillips, which grossed $218 million and garnered multiple nominations for Best Actor, even if none from the Academy. Phillips represented a return to the classic “Hanks as Unlikely Hero” scenario, but it did so against the backdrop of Somali pirates and the currents of globalization, and the poverty and desperation it left in its wake.
At that point, Hanks had worked with a who’s who of prominent directors, the vast majority of whom employed the same seamless style in different shades of darkness: Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Sam Mendes, Mike Nichols. But Paul Greengrass — best known for developing the “shaky cam” aesthetic of the Bourne films — gave Captain Phillips and Hanks’ performance an urgency and anxiety that’s wholly absent from the likes of The Da Vinci Code, in which Hanks spends the entire movie running around literally trying to save civilization.
Take the last two minutes of the film, arguably the best of Hanks’ entire career, in part because he’s doing the opposite of the usual Hanks shtick: There’s no pat soliloquy, no strings tied, no resolve or firmly set jaw, just Hanks, in shock after fending off Somali pirates, unable to hear or respond or articulate his trauma. It’s profoundly unnerving — the opposite of the salve that a Hanks film usually provides. In that moment, Hanks is the perfect 2010s star: a white middle-aged man, alarmed by the swiftness with which the world has changed around him, the nearness of death, the fear that won’t leave him.
There’s a sliver of that same fear in The Hologram for a King, in which Hanks plays a man who outsourced American jobs, lost his own job, and is forced to go to Saudi Arabia for a business deal that will allow him to pay for his daughter’s college tuition. The film, based on the best-selling novel by David Eggers, is peak 2010 globalism, but like so many things created by Eggers, it felt yoked to a sentimental, post-irony version of the 2000s.
Hologram was unceremoniously dumped in theaters in April 2016, and made just $4 million on a budget of $30 million — Hanks’ lowest-grossing film since 1986. The film’s fate is a symptom of the contemporary film market, in which there’s little space for mid-budget dramas, even those based on popular books starring established stars. But sandwiched between the success of Bridge of Spies and Sully, another classically Hanks unlikely-hero film, its abject failure suggests how little audiences wanted to see Hanks tackle the problems of our current age if they weren’t packaged in action movie form.
And so we find ourselves at Inferno, the sequel, like so many these days, that no one asked for, opening two weeks early in global markets because that’s where these films actually make money, with a new beautiful brunette (this time, played by Felicity Jones) to act as Hanks’ foil and struggle to create a modicum of chaste chemistry. It’s a film that fails do any of the four E’s that proved so central to the Hanks image, and can’t help but feel something just south of desperate.
He’ll appear in The Circle in early 2017 — an adaptation of another Eggers novel — and has signed on for Toy Story 4. He’s listed as a producer for more than a dozen projects in development, including a documentary series on the decade he ruled, titled The ’90s; an HBO miniseries based on Stephen Ambrose’s Lewis & Clark; an HBO series based on David McCullough’s 1776; a World War II film called Agent Zigzag; another World War II film called In the Garden of Beasts; and Felt, the story of the source known as “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal. Like a classic Dad, he’s taken up hobbies (penning a screenplay about a Navy officer during, you guessed it, World War II; writing a short story for The New Yorker) and dorkiness (appearing in Carly Rae Jepsen’s video for “I Really Like You”; releasing an app that simulates what it’s like to type on an old-school typewriter).
He tried his period of experimentation, with its antiheroes and weird accents and complex makeup and supporting roles, and left them behind. There’s a reason all his R-rated movies, with the noted exception of Saving Private Ryan, have either flopped or underperformed: No matter how much Hanks might want to occupy it, the register is a mismatch for the Hanks image, not just playing against type, but something more like betrayal.
And so he’s returned to the broad, comfortable middle of PG-13 history. The subjects might be different, but the overarching message is always the same. It might still make millions, it might be the very thing a Dad keeps his HBO subscription to watch, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like Hanks, and the audience that fetishizes these narratives along with him is literally stuck in a comfortable past.
David Thomson, author of the essential Biographical Dictionary of Film, suggests that Hanks is above all a producer: “a figure who walks through his own films as if they were on parade for him.” That’s why the films themselves — at least the ones in which his actual physical body, and not just a disembodied voice, appear — can feel so anesthetized. Some viewers realized as much at the time, but most did not — I remember feeling great exuberance watching Forrest Gump, and deep moral importance sitting in the theater for Saving Private Ryan. But those feelings do not linger, because their sources, like so many Oscar films, use exquisite cinematography and soaring scores to mask a hollowness within.
That hollowness is almost always a by-product of self-seriousness, of the staunch belief that this story is important. But when does a story become important? When it actually changes minds? Or when, in the watching, it in fact makes its primary audience — that is to say, middle-class white people, and men in particular — feel better? Feel soothed, which is to say, feel addressed, feel seen.
As for women, and people of color, and anyone who doesn’t fit in the demographic of straight Dadness, we’ve been trained all our lives to find pleasure in narratives that don’t address us. When white Dads feel good, we’ve learned to bask in that afterglow, diffuse as it might be. Which helps explain the massive appeal of these films, even as they continued to address the white-male Dad experience — to the extent that one film almost exclusively features Hanks, alone, on an island. By speaking to, and soothing, white Dads, they bolstered that strong boomer center that has pulsed, for the last 50 years, at the heart of the American experience.
Hanks represents, as he once put it, “the sensibilities of my generation.” And as those sensibilities cease to structure the moral center of America, Hanks will take on the same outsize significance as the “greatest generation” he has been so instrumental in beatifying, held up as proof of “the good old days” that were never actually that good to anyone who wasn’t a white male.
As so often has been the case, Hanks seems dubious about the simplicity that’s been ascribed to him. Much of it might be his own doing — the decision, for example, to keep producing HBO history miniseries — but you can’t look at Cloud Atlas and not think that he’s at least trying to be something more than the sum of his historical parts. Even his recent turn on Saturday Night Live as a Trump supporter on “Black Jeopardy” suggests that he sees how Dadness can go dark, retreat into paranoia and intractability, willfully blind to what might unite him with those different from him.
For over 20 years, Hanks has been the quintessential American actor. The years to come will show whether he decides to hold on to that mantle by honestly grappling with what it feels like to no longer be the gravity of every narrative — or if he continues to situate himself at its center, offering a salve to those too scared of a world in which they are not the majority. Hanks’ legacy — as a star who slowly sank into the defensive pit of his aging boomerness, or, alternately, as one who continued to challenge himself, and others, to do otherwise — will depend on it.
The movie Cast Away is spelled thusly. An earlier version of this story spelled it as one word.