You know what you’re getting with Tom Hanks. If his name is at the top of the bill (and it invariably is), you can be pretty sure you are watching an accessible, warming story that speaks to the better person in all of us. Hanks only plays good guys these days: principled heroes who do the right thing and naturally take charge, whether it’s leading troops into battle or toys on a rescue mission, landing an out-of-control plane or repelling Somali pirates (Hanks himself has noted how many of his characters are named “Captain something”). Like his co-stars, we follow him because we trust him. In a 2013 poll, he was voted “most trusted person in America”.
Now here comes the western News of the World, with Hanks as a liberal-minded civil war veteran (yes, another captain), who reads out the newspapers to information-starved Texans. When he finds an orphaned girl abducted by Native Americans, it’s a safe bet he’s not going to sell her or kill her or anything. You just know he’ll take her under his wing and steadily develop a paternal bond that speaks to the better person in all of us. There is plenty to recommend about News of the World, but with Hanks at the helm, there are few surprises. It feels like a long time since he played un-Hanks-like characters such as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, or even Forrest Gump. He is no longer an actor but an icon.
This is a condition that affects many a veteran actor. James Stewart, for example, who also became a byword for American decency. Or perhaps Michael Caine, who ceased all pretence of “disappearing into the role” some time in the 1990s. Next up, Hanks is at least going vaguely against type, playing Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, who was far from a paragon of virtue. It was while filming that in Australia last year that Hanks caught coronavirus, the first high-profile celebrity to publicly do so. He handled it, as you’d expect, with honesty and humility. And the world loved him back in return. He is practically a living saint, like David Attenborough or Dolly Parton.
Icons have their uses, especially in these divided times. News of the World resonates with the present moment. Hanks’s character’s fellow Confederates are resentful, clinging to white-supremacist beliefs, even refusing to accept the legitimacy of their new president, Ulysses S Grant. More than just simply transmitting the news, Hanks tailors it to what he thinks his audiences might need to hear, adding in a few unifying sentiments. “We’re all hurtin’,” he tells a fractious mob. “These are difficult times.” Coming from him, it means something.
There is still time for Hanks to surprise us with a genuinely subversive role: a serial killer, say, or an evil soft toy, but perhaps it’s best for all of us that he doesn’t. At this stage, it could trigger the collapse of civilisation as we know it.