OPINION: In uncertain times, Tom Hanks continues to deliver talent, hope

At 64 years of age, Tom Hanks is still experimenting with various film genres and character types. In his latest film “News of the World”, he plays a Civil War veteran who takes on the paternal role to reunite a little girl with her family. Promotional artwork courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Wearing a classic black suit and a warm smile, Tom Hanks hosted the 2021 Inaugural Concert following Joe Biden’s inauguration in January. His appearance, while timely, was reflective of how frightening and fragile the year 2020 was for him and all of us.

In mid-March, right when the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect our lives, the world was rocked with news of Hanks and his wife Rita contracting the virus. 

The world seemed to freeze in time. 

Reality set in.

Many would argue that this is when the pandemic became real for them.

Hearing that we could potentially lose Tom Hanks in 2020 was the rare kind of headline that moves people of all ages. We held our breath, waiting for news of his recovery.

Thankfully, he and his wife overcame their illness and resumed their places in our lives.

Tom Hanks’ status as an American cultural icon is well deserved from his extensive catalog of film and television appearances, as well as his political activism. His evolution as an actor is particularly extraordinary, as he has arguably one of the most diverse filmographies of any actor. 

His most recent film, News of the World, is already receiving acclaim from critics, many noting how the natural Tom Hanks appeal is still present, even as he pushes the boundaries of his talent and undertakes complex yet mesmerizing roles.

Regardless of how many of his films one has seen, the name “Tom Hanks” is one that is undoubtedly recognizable, circulating in and out of movie theaters every year while still pulling in large crowds at each new release. His reputation as one of the world’s most popular film stars is nearly unrivaled, as he has been dominating the cinematic universe since the 20th century.

After being cast in many successful films in the early ‘80s, he established himself as an eminent talent with his role in the 1988 film Big. He played the adult version of Joshua Baskin, a kid who transforms from a 12-year-old to a grown-up overnight. The film was a huge box office success and solidified Hanks’ spot in Hollywood. His ability to capture the innocence, immaturity, and intellect of a little kid while being a fully-formed adult showcased his range, and even minor behaviors such as his walk and body language showed how invested he actually was in the character. 

Tom Hanks reached a new peak in his career with his leading turn in “Big”, where he played the adult version of a kid who unintentionally transforms into a grown-up overnight. The role proved to be significant in Hanks’ future success in Hollywood, gaining him recognition in Hollywood and around the world. Promotional artwork courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

This role also exposed his natural charm and appeal to viewers of all ages. Becoming a household name and critical treasure, he received his first Academy Award nomination for his performance in the film.

Although he lost this award, he would prevail in 1994 with what many consider a career-best performance as Andrew Beckett in the film Philadelphia. Appearing alongside Denzel Washington, Hanks plays a newly unemployed lawyer who suspects he was fired due to his homosexuality and AIDS status.

Already considered one of Hollywood’s greatest actors due to his ability to transcend character types, he received further appreciation from the Academy the following year with another lead turn in Forrest Gump. In the film, he played the dim-witted titular character who lives quite the eventful life in the mid-1900s as he experiences several key historical events firsthand. 

With these foundational roles, it was apparent that Hanks had an authentic on-screen magnetism, one that captivated audiences while still cementing himself in the Hollywood landscape. 

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of his performances, however, is how delicate yet sincere every character he plays is. He has the amazing capability to provide a natural sense of realness to characters who seem so disconnected from the audience, a capability found so far and few between that it borders unrepeatable.

In the early 2000s, he continued to find success playing a multitude of roles. Whether he was leading a troop of US army rangers in Saving Private Ryan, or finding himself abandoned and struggling to survive on an island in Castaway, he continued to entrance audiences with his on-screen presence and emotional delivery. 

His success is not entirely as an individual, however. He has a long track record of starring alongside fellow iconic actors and actresses, forming powerful duos and creating memorable performances. Some of the most popular include Catch Me If You Can, The Da Vinci Code, Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Phillips, and The Post.

Perhaps the most recognizable actors in Hollywood, Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio teamed up for the 2002 biographical crime film “Catch Me If You Can”. In the film, FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) attempts to capture teenager-turned-con-artist, Frank Abagnale (DiCaprio). Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Of course, his appeal to different generations can also be credited to his vocal performances as Woody in the Toy Story franchise. As the four movies have varying release dates over a span of 24 years, it is safe to say that Tom Hanks has been a part of almost everyone’s life in some capacity. There is some character, some movie of his that everyone can remember and treasure. His versatility through almost every genre of film has allowed him to influence his own generation, their descendants, and now even their descendants.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of his performances, however, is how delicate yet sincere every character he plays is. He has the amazing capability to provide a natural sense of realness to characters who seem so disconnected from the audience, a capability found so far and few between that it borders unrepeatable.

More importantly, many of Hanks’ films serve as very affecting commentary today. Forrest Gump, for example, shows US politics from an unfiltered vantage point, while Philadelphia speaks to continued homophobic discrimination in society. Hanks himself is no stranger to social issues intertwining with his career, as he has made it a point over the years to voice his opinions on various topics, including same-sex marriage and climate change. He has also gone out of his way to endorse many Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden.

A man dedicated to giving back in every way he can, he even donated an espresso machine to the press corps at the White House when he learned that they didn’t have one.

His years of activism and political involvement led him to receive the President Medal of Freedom during Obama’s presidency.

It is simply undeniable the impact that Tom Hanks has had on American cinema. His name alone on a movie poster consistently draws out large crowds, yet his talent is legitimate and noteworthy. 

With a charisma so comforting, it seemed as though fate was coming to fruition when he played Mr. Rogers in the 2020 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Arguably the nicest man in Hollywood portrayed the nicest man on television in a role that so perfectly reflected his own charm and tenderness. The parallel was so remarkable that he received yet another Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, his sixth nomination overall.

His impact has been considered so profound that he received the Cecil B. DeMille award at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards.

It definitely does not appear that Hanks is slowing down anytime soon, and rightfully so. He still has the same energy, wit, and splendor that made him so beloved in the ‘80s. Considering he gave Hollywood some of its most memorable films, there will likely always be a role for him to fill.

This past year, that role seemed to be one of a beacon. A beacon of hope, fortitude, positivity, and perseverance. In a year that tried to take him out, he still came out on the other side, stronger and braver than ever. By not allowing himself to slow down following his health scare in early 2020, he turned out to be the best face to host the Inaugural Concert, a celebration of life, strength, and the future.

Alex Prince is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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