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The Problem with Having a Light Comedian as Our Historian in Chief

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Hanks on cover of Time


Tom Hanks, who began his career as a light comedian on the TV show, "Bosom Buddies," is featured on the cover of the latest Time magazine, where he is pictured looking seriously off to the side next to the headline, "History Maker." The smaller print says, "How Tom Hanks is redefining America's past." Well-known historian Douglas Brinkley writes the article.

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Hanks is among the most successful performers in American film history. He has been ranked by Harris Polls as America's Favorite Movie Star three times, tied for the most such listings with Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood. He is tied with Tom Cruise (at 7) for the second most consecutive movies grossing over $100 million (Will Smith leads with 8).

Hanks' films generally have a light touch, but often with significant underlying meaning (think of his 1988 film, "Big," which was directed by Penny Marshall). He follows Sidney Poitier and Gary Cooper for most listings, with four, on the American Film Institute's 100 Most Inspiring Movies. Hanks received the AFI's Lifetime Achievement Award (the 30th one awarded) in 2002, when he was 45.

Hanks' highest-ranking film on the AFI inspirational list (at #10) is the 1998 "Saving Private Ryan," directed by Steven Spielberg, about a group of soldiers searching for a G.I. behind enemy lines after the allied landings at Normandy. Following "Ryan," Hanks produced the 2001 HBO series, "Band of Brothers," based on a book by Stephen Ambrose about a group of soldiers who parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day, and who then liberated a concentration camp and were the first to enter Hitler's mountain retreat.

Hanks is now turning to bigger game. He has just produced, along with Spielberg and Gary Goetzman, a 10-hour series (beginning March 14th) for HBO titled, "The Pacific," about the Western theater in World War II. This topic will prove more controversial than his earlier, inspirational, WWII films. Like Clint Eastwood's linked films about the subject, "Flags of Our Fathers"/"Letters From Iwo Jima," the series will detail American's reciprocal brutality towards Japanese soldiers - prisoners were rarely taken.

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But Hanks' series makes far less of an effort to depict the Japanese perspective than did Eastwood, a Hollywood icon whose life's work would not have led viewers to expect his "Letters," filmed entirely from the Japanese soldiers' point of view.

Only important, unassailable figures like Eastwood and potentially Hanks and Spielberg could attempt such a "bi-focal" approach. Spielberg took this approach toward the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the Middle East conflict in "Munich," for which he was roundly criticized. But the massive (costing $200+ million) HBO series does not attempt such an ambitious, humanist effort. According to Brian Lowery in Variety, "only a passing effort is made to locate humanity in the Japanese."

Like many talented, successful feature actors (think Tom Cruise and George Clooney), Hanks avoids serious arguments and relies instead on a quick smile and breezy attitude. He keeps his public appearances light, with a kind of forced frivolity appropriate for, well, a light comedy actor. No one wants to hear Hanks wax philosophical, which he is smart enough to realize.

Naturally, one wonders about the real Tom Hanks. Although he has a fabled Hollywood marriage (to Rita Wilson), it is his second - the first, lasting ten years, also produced two children. That's fine, but complicating, like Hanks' own upbringing, which he describes as "fractured." He was brought up by a series of stepfamilies.

Hanks' off-screen quotes suggest a fascinating, complex human being; albeit one as yet incapable of producing films that portray such complex emotions.

"My wife keeps on telling me my worst fault is that I keep things to myself and appear relaxed. But I am really in a room in my own head and not hearing a thing anyone is saying."

"Some people go to bed at night thinking, 'That was a good day.' I am one of those who worries and asks, 'How did I screw up today?'"

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"My favorite traditional Christmas movie that I like to watch is 'All Quiet on the Western Front.' It's just not December without that movie in my house."

A man driven is Tom Hanks. Why, he doesn't even watch "It's A Wonderful Life," and "A Christmas Carol" over the holidays, like the rest of us.

 

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