Tom Hanks Returns as America’s Steady Captain
It is beyond trite to talk about Hanks as the Celebrity Moral Compass. But, forgive us, with a new movie, “Greyhound,” and pandemic real-talk, it’s impossible not to do it again.
The Hollywood Everyman. America’s Dad. Hollywood’s Moral Compass. Our Friendly Neighbor, the Calm in the Storm, the Steady Captain. The broad-stroke clichés we’ve adorned on Tom Hanks, used to box up the perception of one of our greatest celebrities, are so passé at this point they’re practically anti-clever.
Yet they’re still often used because they’ve existed for decades, words that describe the centering presence of this irresistibly likable movie star. And we remember them, every time and probably to our own detriment, when there’s another Tom Hanks project to consider, another cultural moment anchored by his presence in it.
It’s only occasionally a productive exercise, as it was when A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was released last year, with Hanks as Mr. Rogers. Whatever baggage we place on his performances because of the values we personally associate with him, it culminated in a perfect role, for a perfect actor, at a perfect time.
The collision was so powerful, it instead forced us to dismantle all those quaint, easy stereotypes: Despite whatever saintly niceness and mythical goodness we project onto his shoulders, he, like Mr. Rogers, is real. That itself was a comforting realization.
This is all worth bringing up again as a preamble apology, or at least a warning. Because everything we just said was anti-clever, unuseful, dehumanizing, and lame... yet circumstances have us doing it again. This time, however, we might accuse Hanks himself of being complicit, at least in part.
In Greyhound, a judiciously thrilling new war film (barely 90 minutes of breathless intensity and not one second wasted), Hanks plays the Steady Captain. All hell breaks loose. Danger at every turn. Death imminent and escape absolutely improbable. But, with an iron will weighting his feet and his emotions to the ground, he stays the course.
It’s a great Tom Hanks part based on a character we consider a Tom Hanks type. It makes sense that it suits him so perfectly. Hanks wrote it himself.
The screenplay he wrote is based on a fictional story depicting actual World War II events of February 1942. Hanks’ Commander Ernest Krause captains the Greyhound, leading a convoy of ships through the notorious “Black Pit,” the stretch of the North Atlantic too far from either continent to be protected by air cover, leaving them as sitting ducks for German U-boats.
Greyhound’s unique approach to the war movie ensures that Krause’s heroism is not dramatized in trite, grandiose ways. It is instead a diary-like look inside the command perch as he surgically delivers orders; there’s no space for grandstanding or “this is what we’ve been training for, men” speechifying.
His focus amidst the frenzy of action contributes to a heart-pounding sense of claustrophobia, which in effect also zeroes in on the nature of this commander: He is a skilled man doing the job he was trained to do, motivated by nothing more than an inherent sense of duty and what is right. Could it be more Tom Hanks?
These connections are so obvious we imagine anybody would be making them at any time. But the circumstances of Greyhound’s release—this Friday, streaming on Apple TV+—only heighten them.
The film was initially scheduled for a traditional theatrical bow this summer, but after the pandemic shut down cinemas, it was purchased by Apple from Sony for $70 million. Even in a summer defined in the industry by pivots and rescheduling, there’s something significant about a film like Greyhound opting for a streaming release.
It’s not a genre or indie film that seems a natural fit for the at-home viewing experiment. It’s a Tom Hanks war movie, a broad-skewing tentpole that, rather than postpone its release or line up for the imminent reopening of cinemas, is embracing the possibility and the risk of a streaming debut.
At an uncertain time for the industry, it means something that Hanks is endorsing these new options. Again, we hate how easy and obvious these takeaways are—as Hollywood hits choppy waters, Captain Hanks arrives to steady the ship—but there’s also something soothing about being able to identify them. And if you thought these connections were already pedestrian-bordering-on-insufferable, well, buckle up because it’s about to get worse.
Here we go: It’s impossible not to watch Hanks’ performance in Greyhound without immediately drawing parallels to the ways he’s emerged as a stern, rational public figure amid the coronavirus pandemic.
I know. But don’t blame me. It’s too glaring not to point out.
Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, were the first two major celebrities to publicly confirm that they had tested positive for COVID-19. In March, when the virus still seemed like a problem looming outside of immediate concern, their diagnoses jarred many Americans into facing reality, demystifying the disease in the process.
Now, circumstances have it that he is promoting Greyhound as the pandemic intensifies in the United States and safety precautions like wearing masks have become politicized issues, to lethal effect.
And so came the Today show interview that saw Hanks mincing no words, expressing bafflement that what should be a basically human act—following whatever guidelines suggested to save lives—has become controversial.
He’s not the only one to say it. But he is the only Tom Hanks to say it.
I loathe when people write Tom Hanks pieces like this one but, I’m sorry, it is impossible with this movie and this news cycle to not write this Tom Hanks piece right now.
As the country whirls into a din of debate over the coronavirus, the Steady Captain delivers his stern orders. It’s a voice that people hear. As a survivor, it’s one that some need to hear. It’s a certain authority that he has earned. I’m groaning as I finish this paragraph.
I hate that I’m writing this because it seems so lame, but by the same token I couldn’t not write it because, when watching Greyhound, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. None of this was planned, but there is something about this character that Hanks wrote for himself and this public servant role we’ve cast him in, meeting at this time. It not only fits, but seems somehow necessary.
Anyway, this whole thing was the worst. Tom Hanks is the best. I’m sorry that we keep making him be the Tom Hanks Guy. But, to be fair, he’s so good at it that we can’t help it.
Greyhound streams starting July 10 on Apple TV+.