Although 'Forrest Gump' has been garnering a more mixed reputation in recent years than it did upon release, there's no denying the effectiveness of Hanks' leading performance. Fluctuating between comic and dramatic at the drop of a hat, it's a role that has no right to work and in the wrong hands, it could have been downright offensive. After all, we're talking about a mentally challenged man who accidentally wanders through American history without realizing his importance. Hanks instills the cartoonish outline with real humanity, keeping Forrest surprisingly grounded and human through the whole film.
There are few major movie stars who seem as gracious on screen as Tom Hanks. Although his face is the one plastered on the poster for Frank Darabont's 'The Green Mile,' the film is very much an ensemble piece and Hanks seems more than happy to share the screen with a a crazy number of awesome character actors. It's a wonderful, warm and humane performance -- Hanks grounds himself and transforms into the quiet center of the film, allowing the rest of the cast to shine while he commands the plot. It may not be his flashiest role, but it's definitely one of his best.
What do we want out of a movie astronaut? We want a tough all-American, a highly intelligent and charismatic genius/warrior who sweats off more bravery every day than the average person uses in a lifetime. That means only two people are allowed to play astronauts: George Clooney and, of course, Tom Hanks, whose performance as Jim Lovell in 'Apollo 13' feels perfectly pitched and totally real. Hanks' depiction of a leader powering through one of history's most terrifying crises makes for compelling viewing, serving as a bittersweet reminder that we've not only lost the space program, but the kind of people who get made by it.
'Saving Private Ryan' doesn't have a lot of room for character development, but Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg know this. Much of the cast of this epic World War II drama are thinly sketched archetypes, characters we understand completely within minutes of meeting them. No one is better at pulling this off than Hanks, who paints his Captain Miller as an ordinary guy thrust into an extraordinary and terrifying situation. His classic "everyman" status becomes his greatest asset, letting us see a little piece of ourselves in a soldier charged with keeping a squad of men alive at all costs while embarking on a dangerous rescue mission. We feel his fear because we can't help but wonder if that could have been us.
Although he built his reputation on playing nice guys, Hanks is often at his best when given the chance to try something completely different. Sam Mendes casting him as a mob hitman in his underrated 'Road to Perdition' was a stroke of genius, letting the actor play to his strengths while letting him surprise us. Hanks' Michael Sullivan is a family man and loving father, but he's also a cold-blooded murderer, a working killer who executes other people to put food on the table. It's a tricky performance, but Hanks makes it look easy, bringing his "average, ordinary guy" style to the role a potentially evil man, grounding him in a very grey place. Hanks makes it easy to like (and maybe even admire) a stone-cold killer in a movie that refuses to glamorize violence. That's impressive work.
People were surprised to see Tom Hanks play a morally grey character in 'Road to Perdition,' so it was downright shocking to see him play a moustache-twirling cartoonish villain in 'The Ladykillers.' Although often seen as the nadir of the Coen brothers' otherwise remarkable career, the film itself isn't bad, thanks in part to Hanks' insane, bonkers and hilarious performance. He slips into the Coen's strange, blackly comic aesthetic effortlessly, always on the verge of being a total ham but offering just enough restraint to avoid being a total caricature. The initial fun of the film is watching good 'ol Tom Hanks play a criminal who plans to murder an innocent old woman, but you soon lose yourself in the performance, forget that this is Hanks and simply enjoy the craziness.
'Cloud Atlas' is one of the most ambitious films ever made, with every single frame of the movie attempting to do something that we've never seen before. That ambition extends to the performances, where major movie stars like Tom Hanks are tasked with throwing shame and fear to the wind. In the film's time-jumping plot, Hanks plays a con-artist doctor, a sleazy hotel clerk, a dweeby scientist, a cockney criminal and a post-apocalyptic tribesman, representing one of the craziest tasks ever set before an actor. Not every performance works, but Hanks gives each of them his all, resulting in a series of performances that showcase his range and bravery like few have ever before. "Risky" looks really good on Mr. Hanks. We hope he'll take more chances like this very soon.
It's become a bit of a joke these days that actors will seek out roles where they get to play people who die of tragic illnesses in order to win awards, so it's remarkable just how powerful Tom Hanks' role in 'Philadelphia' remains today. Since the shock of seeing a beloved movie star playing a gay AIDS victim has passed, modern viewers are left with one of the most raw performances of Hanks' career. There's no major hook to 'Philadelphia,' no action and surprisingly little theatrics -- it's just Hanks, bringing humanity to a character who the other people in the film view as less than human. The battle for equal rights for gays and lesbians is still ongoing, but Hanks and 'Philadelphia' are a reminder of how far we have come.
Since Tom Hanks eventually became an Oscar-winning prestige actor, his earlier comedic work often gets dismissed entirely. But it would be foolish to ignore 'Big,' which was Hanks' launching pad into real stardom for good reason. It's easy to imagine the premise (young boy finds himself in the body of a grown man) being unrepentantly creepy with almost any other actor, but Hanks seems to know what makes kids tick. He never reduces his performance to childish antics. Instead, he manages to capture the fear and curiosity of childhood, finding the pain that comes with growing up and letting it make sense on a drastically reduced timeframe. It helps that 'Big' is also a really funny and sweet movie, but Hanks is the reason is has a soul.
If you want to test the mettle of an actor, give them a monologue and put them on a stage, alone. If you want to test the mettle of Tom Hanks, put him a desert island and only give him a volley ball to talk to for two hours. 'Cast Away' is a fairly straightforward tale of survival on a desert island, but it's anchored by a remarkable performance that proves that Hanks is one of the few actors who can captivate an audience without help from anyone else. Watching Hanks wander around a deserted island trying to fish and make fire is, somehow, one of the most compelling things you'll ever see. Chalk it up to his inherent likability or chalk it up to the fact that few actors can command the sympathy of an audience with so much subtle power as Hanks. Either way, it's an astonishing performance.