Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg disguise their sophistication with squareness

Note: This piece originally ran in 2015, two years before The Post was released.

When Tom Hanks starred in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan for director Steven Spielberg, it was an event that seemed long overdue: one of the world’s biggest movie stars teaming with the world’s most successful filmmaker. Their careers in the ’90s had similar arcs, beginning with critical disasters (1990’s Bonfire Of The Vanities for Hanks; 1991’s Hook for Spielberg) before reaching dual triumphs in 1993 with summer hits (Jurassic Park and Sleepless In Seattle) and Oscar glory (Schindler’s List and Philadelphia). More hits followed, and in retrospect it’s odd to consider that Hanks worked with a Spielberg protégé (Robert Zemeckis), a Spielberg movie-brat buddy (Brian De Palma), a Spielberg associate and parody (Joe Dante), and a sort of ersatz Spielberg (Ron Howard) before finally arriving at the real deal for Private Ryan.

That eventual collaboration was an enormous hit, and the pair has reunited three times to date, most recently for 2015’s Bridge Of Spies. But while both men have enjoyed plenty of success since 1998, their partnership peaked early, at least in terms of box office and mainstream critical attention; only Saving Private Ryan has a clear and undisputed place in their respective canons. Instead, the Spielberg/Hanks collaboration turned into an outlet for both artists to explore some of their less-hip instincts as they powered through middle age.

Spielberg and Hanks seem particularly dad-like and potentially fusty when they indulge their mutual interest in the past. Of their four films together, only The Terminal is set in something like contemporary times. The other three are pure period, and with some precedent: Spielberg had already racked up several World War II-set features before Private Ryan. Following Forrest Gump, Hanks seemed to take both that boomer-traveler role and newfound clout as a directive to serve as curator of boomer and boomer-adjacent history through his film work and his HBO miniseries productions. Both artists contain multitudes, but their common ground seems to include at least some degree of squareness—of reverence for our shared American history.

If that reverence was the only note they ever hit together, they might well encourage each other’s worst instincts. But their four films together aren’t just a checklist of important American eras; some of them also call back to other phases of their storied careers. Before they each had a pair of Oscars, both Hanks and Spielberg were better-known as popular entertainers than historical chroniclers. Hanks got his start in a sitcom and a bunch of broad comedies; this may be why he’s much better at comedy than Spielberg, who can inject tension-relieving humor but can’t always sustain a comic tone. A major exception is their second collaboration, Catch Me If You Can, which, if not precisely a comedy, certainly uses Spielberg’s forward momentum in service of a lighter, funnier story than he tends to favor.

Hanks plays FBI agent Carl Hanratty, second lead and primary antagonist to Leonardo DiCaprio’s con man Frank Abagnale Jr., who begins a life of forgery and impersonation as a teenager. Hanratty is introduced as something of a buttoned-up square, delivering endless slide presentations on the subject of bank fraud and forgery, the specialty areas that lead him to his years-long pursuit of Abagnale. It’s a funny performance, although more disciplined and rooted in character than the early-Hanks comedy types (like his loose, sloppy detective opposite Dan Aykroyd’s Joe Friday in the 1987 update of Dragnet).

Throughout the film, Spielberg kids Hanratty’s squareness, presented in stark contrast to Abagnale’s slick (and illegal) people-pleasing. That difference is most prominent in an early scene where Hanratty openly disparages the agents assigned to work under him to their faces and, when confronted with their discomfort over his seriousness, tells them a “joke” whose primary function is to eliminate any possibility of him telling future jokes. That’s especially appropriate for Catch Me If You Can, which has a lot of funny moments and often plays as comedy (or at least comedy-drama), but also doesn’t really traffic in jokes, per se. The humor comes from Abagnale’s skillful impersonations of various grown-up lives (and bank accounts), a cocktail of conniving moxie and weirdly childlike make-believe—the way he moves through life with a fleet and confident lack of substance. Hanks, then, plays the part of the immovable object; he can’t typically move fast enough to catch up with Abagnale, but he can grind him down with dogged, unflagging determination. In its way, it’s a sign of Spielberg’s maturity: He clearly loves Abagnale’s youthful, almost innocent deceptions, but he also identifies with Hanratty’s insistence that the kid will have to pay for his crimes one way or another. Catch Me If You Can is a terrific showcase for DiCaprio, but the interplay between him and Hanks adds some weight to a seemingly light film—one of Spielberg’s stealth best.

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The other comic role Hanks filled for Spielberg is more traditionally “funny,” though still not much like anyone from early Hanks comedies. In The Terminal, Spielberg cast him as Viktor Navorski, a resident of the fictional Eastern European country Krakozhia, which undergoes a military coup while he’s on a flight to New York’s JFK Airport. When he lands, his passport is no longer valid, and he is not allowed to enter the U.S., nor on a return flight home. He is stuck at the airport, and even his stuckness is something of a cosmic joke. A more cunning victim of circumstance would realize that he could, in fact, escape the airport, into the U.S., and wait out his homeland’s problems elsewhere—that some of the security folks would even prefer this, despite the orders they must officially issue. But Viktor takes these rules to heart, and takes up residence at JFK.

For 2004, the movie is casually and almost strangely whimsical about the bureaucratic snafus of homeland security. That same year, Hanks made a return to his comic roots, going dark and ornate in the Coen Brothers remake of The Ladykillers as the nefarious, vaguely Sideshow Bob-ish mastermind behind a robbery and attempted murder. For Spielberg, he threw back to an older style of comedy. Spielberg’s propensity for conveying action in single, fluid takes gives Hanks a physical showcase, and his business in the first half of the picture owes a lot to silent comedians as he chases meal vouchers across the food court floor or re-engineers some airport seats into a makeshift bed. It’s not really laugh-out-loud funny—Spielberg is a technical and often emotional ace, but he often seems to find the timing for real comic surprise only in action sequences when comedy is not a strict requirement. (Many of his Indiana Jones action sequences, for example, are funnier than equivalent material in his similarly scaled comedy 1941, which is at its most thrilling when it threatens to turn into a full-on musical).

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Frankly, Hanks probably gets more actual laughs in some of his disreputable pre-prestige work than he does in The Terminal (that Dragnet redo, for example, is really a lot of fun). But while The Terminal does play, like Catch Me If You Can, as a comedy-drama, gut-busting is not its chief pursuit; instead, Spielberg gets to parlay a technical challenge, which involves the construction of a massive and very convincing airport set, into lighter material, and Hanks gets to return to comedy with a more humanistic bent. The Terminal is largely about waiting, and his Navorski—who in his own way is as dogged as Carl Hanratty in the realm of rule-following—has a patience and grace in his initial bumbling. He goes from knowing almost no English to building an interim life for himself just outside of America, even wooing a foxy flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. This 2004 movie makes no direct mention of terrorist attacks; instead, it’s an old-fashioned immigrant story—and, again, a little square about it, because Spielberg and Hanks would ultimately rather try to warm hearts than make people laugh.

This makes The Terminal, while amply charming and worthwhile, the least of the Hanks/Spielberg films, and one of Spielberg’s lesser late-period works. In general, later-period Spielberg actually features some of his boldest, thorniest, and most thrilling films, particularly in his unofficial sci-fi trilogy of A.I., Minority Report, and War Of The Worlds. But those aren’t the types of movies where he enlists Hanks; for a time, he’d instead go to marathon man Tom Cruise, at least until the War Of The Worlds PR debacle. Cruise, despite his All-American image, is very much willing to go darker or crazier than his dashing surface. Hanks, while seemingly in possession of strong taste and probably less ego, doesn’t usually hang out so close to the edge of anxiety or despair; even his hit man movie Road To Perdition is pretty tasteful as far as that kind of thing goes, and his dark Coens comedy is also one of their silliest.

Similarly, Saving Private Ryan, while extremely violent and gritty, isn’t one of Spielberg’s riskier movies. But it remains fascinating in part because it can be read so easily as both a cry against the horrors of war and a tribute to the noble sacrifices of this particular “good” war. Spielberg’s version of war can be hell—seen not just in his landmark D-Day opening sequence, but the equally terrific bridge-defense sequence that closes the picture—but it cannot be soul-destroying madness, not exactly. Though Private Ryan contains some of the most powerfully terrifying war scenes ever produced, it also opens and closes on a shot of an American flag rippling in the wind and turns on a dad-friendly admonishment of one character to “earn this.”

That line is spoken by Hanks. Despite the borderline sermonizing the ties into the film’s much-derided framing device, he’s also the movie’s grounding influence—the element that makes Saving Private Ryan more than the sum of its technical achievements and lends it some nuance notably absent from, say, another big-budget war-movie of the era also scripted by Robert Rodat, The Patriot. Captain Miller is in some ways a consummate Hanks character: a beacon of decency and quiet authority. But Hanks had not actually played many leaders pre-Ryan and he hadn’t killed many people on screen either. Though that innate decency makes a Hanks character seem like an invaluable part of a platoon, he’s also not exactly an obvious choice to play a military grunt. Saving Private Ryan, consciously or not, takes advantage not just of the Hanks persona, but of the rarified movie-star air he had ascended to by 1998. Though Hanks isn’t nearly the box-office force today, the effect still lingers. The movie has a big cast of familiar faces, and Hanks is the only one who remains of similar stature almost 20 years later.

Accordingly, Spielberg and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski often separate Hanks from the other actors in the frame; there are plenty of shots presenting the non-Miller soldiers sharing on-screen space, while Miller gets lots of his own single shots and close-ups, especially on his shaking hands. The character’s showcase moment comes late in the film, when some of the men are torn and volatile over their mission to locate James Ryan so that he can be sent home after his brothers are all killed in action. None of the soldiers know anything about Captain Miller’s background, and have a betting pool going about his origins, so at a crucial moment, Miller distracts from their infighting by offering up that information. He is a schoolteacher, specializing in English lit, and explains that with every moment in battle, every man he kills, he feels further away from that life—his real life. Hanks begins the scene in the middle of the action, but the camera pushes in, and after cutting around to the other soldiers, fixes on Hanks, who travels to the foreground and comes to dominate the shot. Spielberg uses his virtuoso command of film language to assert his lead actor’s importance.

It’s perhaps the key non-battle scene in the film. Though Miller is depicted as quietly and steadfastly heroic (in other words, as a Tom Hanks character, albeit with a greater body count), in this moment Hanks and Spielberg separate that heroism from his humanity. His participation in a war, however just it seems, is costing him something. As much as Miller embodies a certain ideal of Hanks the movie star, the character describes himself, essentially, placing some of those ideals aside.

It’s Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies, then, that offers an even Hanksier version of Tom Hanks: just as decent, and without moral compromise. His James Donovan is an insurance lawyer roped into Cold War espionage, first as a lawyer for a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance), and then as a negotiator attempting to secure the release of an American soldier for that spy. A main source of the story’s suspense is the question of how this unassuming man, untrained in spycraft, will navigate through a seemingly impossible position with his principles (and life) intact.

Spielberg and the script (co-written by Hanks’ Ladykillers buddies the Coens) treat Donovan as a lovable semi-nebbish. On assignment in a divided Berlin, he is accosted and mugged for his coat (“spy stuff” is how he dryly characterizes its absence), and spends most of his mission nursing a cold. It’s as charming a performance as Hanks has given in recent years; if his Saving Private Ryan turn hasn’t always received due attention for its subtlety (he was nominated for an Oscar but never really in an awards conversation that saw Roberto Benigni upsetting Ian McKellen), Bridge Of Spies makes his work look even smoother, easier, and more in the vein of old-fashioned star turns from the ’40s and ’50s. Hanks has been compared to Jimmy Stewart, and it feels especially apt in Bridge Of Spies when Donovan stands up to the community calling for his head for offering the Soviet a fair and sincere defense. By the end of the movie, he’s been vindicated, and is in receipt of many admiring, approving looks when he rides his commuter train, his triumph plastered over the newspapers.

This feels, at first, like a stereotypical Spielberg ending—laying on the uplift with a trowel. But as he often does in recent years, Spielberg includes a key shot that undercuts the sentiment. Looking out the train window, Donovan sees young American men scaling some backyard fences, which clearly evokes an image from the Berlin section of the film, where he witnesses young men gunned down as they try to scale the wall. It’s a chilling reminder that not all is well in the world just because the Tom Hanks character has received a hero’s welcome back home.

This note of unsettlement is very later-period Spielberg; as funny and thoughtful as the real Hanks seems, it’s nonetheless easy to imagine him appearing in the more unambiguously solemn and respectful version of this story. (One of his future projects, for example, has him playing airline pilot Captain Sully for Clint Eastwood, which sounds like an archetypal Hanks role with the notable inconvenience of lacking any kind of interesting story driving it, amounting to the thrilling story of a nice guy doing a good job. Frankly, it sounds like a Hanks parody.) Hanks’ perceived old-fashioned decency allows Spielberg to dip into an adult sense of Americana to accompany the suburban Americana of his youth—but in Bridge Of Spies, Spielberg, by now a far more shaded artist than his crowdpleasing reputation suggests, is able to bring depth to the familiarity of Hanks as an upstanding, well-meaning family man.

It’s hard to say what might have been different had Hanks and Spielberg intersected earlier in their careers, if Hanks might have improved Always by replacing miscast Spielberg avatar Richard Dreyfuss, or if a younger Spielberg might have made the great out-and-out broad comedy that has so far eluded him. It’s almost certain their work together would skew less History Channel. But like a lot of great filmmakers, their seeming middlebrow squareness belies the sophistication of what they’ve done together. More often than not, Spielberg the populist and Hanks the All-American movie star use their affability to smuggle great work into middle-age and beyond.

Next time: An eccentric writer-director guides one of our most popular stars in between franchise obligations.