Saving Private Ryan. Catch Me If You Can. The Terminal. Bridge of Spies. And now, The Post. What do they all have in common? Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. As their fifth collaboration – a ’70s-set political drama about government secrets and press freedom – arrives in theatres, it’s time to look at what makes this duo’s partnership so creatively and commercially successful, and how the director taps into Hanks’ greatest strengths to consistently cast him as the American everyman hero.
It was for 1998’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan that the pair first teamed up, by which point both men were already superstars in their respective fields. Hanks, just into his 40s, had made his name as a charming dramatic and comedic lead in fare such as Splash, Big, Forrest Gump and Apollo 13 (to name a few). He’d also appeared in the Spielberg-produced The Money Pit and Joe Versus the Volcano. But this was the first time The ‘Berg had come calling for him – and Hanks couldn’t believe it. He recently told the Hollywood Reporter: “I never would have imagined in eight million years that he would be calling me up to say, ‘I’d really like to do this movie with you.'” But it was the start of a beautiful friendship.
In Private Ryan Hanks plays Captain John Miller, the commander of a unit sent to search behind enemy lines for paratrooper James Ryan, the last survivor of four serving brothers. The audience spends most of the film with Miller, from the visceral, shock opening of Omaha Beach (a game-changer for the depiction of war on screen) to the men’s mission to the French town of Ramelle. Miller represents the ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation that will come to epitomise Hanks’ contributions to Spielberg’s work, particularly his historical dramas. Before the war, Miller was a high-school teacher, a husband, a baseball coach. His right hand has a tendency to shake, and at one point he breaks down in tears, both of which he takes care to conceal from this troops. He’s no action hero, no superhuman. He’s just a man, thrust into a situation where heroism and virtue are demanded of him because lives depend on him.
Hanks undoubtedly plays this type of character superbly, and clearly clicked with Spielberg. Four years later they were back working together on the much lighter Catch Me If You Can, another “based on a true story” drama. This time Hanks is cynical, determined FBI agent Carl Hanratty, on the trail of Leonardo DiCaprio’s conman Frank Abagnale in the 1960s. Spielberg swaps the sombre tone of Private Ryan for a breezy, jazzy caper but still turns to our Tom to anchor the story. Hanks is the perfect foil to Leo’s extravagant grifter, the workaday federal agent just trying to do his duty. To do the right thing. It’s an ethos that is returned to in 2015’s Bridge of Spies and now in The Post.
On paper, the only anomaly in the Spielberg-Hanks repertoire is 2004’s The Terminal. In this comedy-drama, Tom becomes displaced Eastern European Viktor Navorski, who is forced to live in New York’s JFK Airport when a military coup back home renders him stateless. Viktor is from the fictional country of Krakozhia, and Hanks gets to have fun with an accent and some broken English. He’s naive rather than street-smart, and doe-eyed and curious rather than world-weary. But this creation still has to convince as a real person, with a real life and real history and “real” home nation, for us to buy into Viktor’s heartwarming escapades while stuck in the terminal.
While not considered Spielberg’s best work, and not seeking to capture a moment in history as his other Hanks films do, The Terminal was still inspired by reality. The story was loosely based on Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who stayed in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport between 1988 and 2006. For Spielberg though, the film was ‘an immigrant’s tale” which “celebrates the great American melting pot.” Hanks, the ultimate American everyman, instead becomes a symbol of what his director loves about the good ol’ USA and the American dream.
Maybe that lays bare an occasional criticism of the bearded maestro – an unabashed jingoism that is certainly evident in Saving Private Ryan and, later, Bridge of Spies. The lead role of lawyer James Donovan is Hanks’ here, as he first defends an accused Russian spy at the height of the Cold War, then crosses the Iron Curtain to negotiate a trade for a captured US airman. It’s a powerhouse performance, and for the first time under Spielberg’s direction Hanks plays a real person instead of an archetype. His Donovan is whip-smart, courageous and a risk-taker – but struck down by a cold in snowy Berlin and desperate to just get home to bed. But the audience is left in no doubt that this man is not just an American hero, but primarily a humanitarian sticking his neck out for his fellow man (in fact, two men).
While Tom Hanks has consistently given top class performances over a near 40-year career, and Spielberg has also formed bonds with collaborators from actors Harrison Ford and Mark Rylance to producer Kathleen Kennedy and composer John Williams, the two seem to bring the best out of each other. They’ve also produced for TV together, notably returning to WWII with Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Ford could do the cool, action man stuff Hanks just couldn’t pull off; likewise, neither Ford nor Hanks are quite the sort to disappear into a “method” impersonation like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. But what Tom Hanks brings to the table is a believable, everyman charm that propels Spielberg’s storytelling. Let’s hope The Post is just the latest product of one of Hollywood’s very best director-star double acts.