Illustrations by Spencer Olson

It Ain’t Easy Playing the Good Guy — Even for Tom Hanks

In ‘Sully,’ Hanks proves depth isn’t only for the villain

Because Tom Hanks has long been one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars — a nice guy who often plays heroes — there can be a tendency to underrate him as a serious actor. Sure, he’s won two Best Actor Oscars (for 1993’s Philadelphia and 1994’s Forrest Gump), but is there any depth beneath all that virtuousness? What’s complex, or difficult even, about playing the hero?

Oddly, this perceived lack of depth is bolstered by Hanks’ personal life, which is unusually spotless by superstar standards. Two perhaps blips: He was married and divorced before tying the knot with his current wife, actress Rita Wilson, in 1988; his son Chet has struggled with addiction. But all in all, he’s avoided scandal, conducting himself in public like the shining all-American movie star we’ve come to expect him to be. He’s even gone above and beyond A-list expectations: reuniting people with their lost gloves, hanging out with his superfans, befriending and delighting New York City cabbies.

But in an actor, that air of wholesomeness can be looked at as some sort of odd demerit — as if he’d somehow be a deeper, darker, better actor if he lived a more scandalous life.

Hanks only strengthens his detractors’ case with comments like the one he made to Total Film in 2013 about why he doesn’t often play villains. “Look, playing bad, I am not interested,” he said. “I don’t want to see bad guys who are just bad, you know? Why are they bad? There are evil villains out there like, I don’t know, Iago, that are intriguing to play. But bad guys do not look bad — they are like you or me.”

That sort of response is anathema to a school of acting that believes that roto-rooting one’s twisted soul is the only way to produce meaningful art. In a world in which the brooding intensity of a Daniel Day-Lewis is treated as the gold standard, Hanks’ penchant for playing the good guy can make him seem lightweight. As Guardian journalist Lynn Barber put it in 1997, “I am… inclined to charge him with culpable blandness and a sort of safe likeability that infects every film he’s involved with.”

But what if we’ve been reading Hanks’ heroism wrong? Yes, he rarely plays the villain — kinda sorta in Road to Perdition, and also in one of his multiple roles in Cloud Atlas — but his brand of good guy is far from boring or squeaky-clean. What makes Hanks such a terrific hero is that his characters often reflect the challenges of being good. Just because they end up choosing not to be bad doesn’t mean they don’t flirt with darkness.

This dynamic has powered plenty of Hanks’ best performances, but it’s all on display in Sully, the new drama in which he plays the titular Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the airline pilot who in 2009 landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after both its engines failed, improbably saving the lives of everyone on board. Sully was trumpeted as a hero in the media, which always loves a feel-good story about a regular guy doing amazing things. But the film focuses in large part on the federal investigation that went on afterward, with officials questioning Sullenberger’s judgment. None of his passengers died, but did he make a mistake by piloting the ship onto the Hudson? Would another course of action been smarter and less risky?

As the pilot, Hanks embodies everything that has made him such a rich, complicated hero over the last 20 years. To fully appreciate the performance, it’s worth tracing his progress back to the beginning of this cycle of conflicted good guys. A year after Barber’s comment, he played Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, the stoic, rugged center of the film. Throughout much of the movie, we don’t know Miller’s background — even his underlings have a pool going on what his occupation was before the war. But because he seems like a natural soldier and leader, we’re surprised to learn that he was a schoolteacher. In one subdued speech, Hanks suggests not only the mild-mannered person Miller once was but also how the character has tried to save part of his core decency amid all the bloodshed.

The speech would look showy on paper, but Hanks manages to find the nuance, showing how his character chose to embrace his best self despite all the understandable reasons why those around him aren’t doing the same. This isn’t simple heroism but, rather, the aspiration to be a good guy. In the heat of battle, it’s all that his character has.

The performance was a sea change in Hanks’ onscreen persona. Earlier in his career, he was the master of a far-less-complicated version of movie-star heroism. In Oscar-winning roles in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, he played innocents thrust into extraordinary circumstances, never revealing a darker side in the process. But from Saving Private Ryan on, Hanks zeroed in on characters who experience very little glory and more than enough pain. The struggle to be heroic was much more palpable, and Hanks made that inner conflict resonate.

2000’s Cast Away saw him play a type-A FedEx executive who discovers that he really can’t control much of anything, marooned for years on an island where he learns to survive but loses everything else — including his fiancée — in the process. 2013’s Captain Phillips was its own kind of survival story, Hanks portraying the real-life U.S. captain whose boat was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Hanks is often praised for his everyman qualities, but in this Paul Greengrass film those very attributes are subverted to make a point: We see how an ordinary American can’t possibly understand the desperation and poverty afflicting the Somalis who are the movie’s real central characters.

By the time of last year’s period drama Bridge of Spies, the business of being the film’s hero seemed positively irritating to Hanks’ character — a role he has to take on because no one else bothers being ethical. His James Donovan is a ramrod-decent insurance lawyer who’s drafted to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an accused Soviet spy. Nobody wants him to give Abel a particularly strenuous defense — it’s the height of the Cold War, after all — but the government also wants to appear that due process has been followed. Donovan loves his country, but he grows increasingly irritated that those in power would cut corners in ensuring that Abel gets a fair trial.

And the angrier Donovan gets, the more he reacts like this:

The depth that people claim not to see in Hanks is fully evident in moments like that. Sure, it’s a big speech, but Donovan is too ornery to be some bland cinematic good guy. He’s not looking to inspire anyone or swell hearts. He just has a job to do, and he wants to do it well. There’s something that’s more heroic about choosing to be honorable than having it be preordained.

And now with Sully, that question of what makes a hero is put under an even greater microscope. Throughout the film, Hanks’ Sullenberger is privately tortured by others’ insistence that he’s a hero. The passengers and their families are so grateful to him, and the media keeps making interview requests — the shy pilot shows up on David Letterman and 60 Minutes. But Sullenberger doesn’t feel comfortable in the part, which only makes it harder when federal investigators begin making him answer for his actions. Is he actually the opposite of a hero? Was he really behaving recklessly and it was only through sheer dumb luck that no one died?

Hanks lets the character’s torment inform every frame, getting to the heart of what’s so hard about heroes: In real life, they often feel like frauds, or are simply trying to convince themselves that they can be heroic. Sully speaks directly to the impossibility of being viewed as a good guy, and Hanks seems to understand that dilemma perfectly.

In 2014, while doing an interview with CBS This Morning’s Gayle King, he talked about acting — as well as his reputation for appearing to be the one sunny, well-adjusted Hollywood superstar. And his answer was revealing. “Do you see how charming and witty I am right now?” he said. “This is purely a self-defense mechanism. This is just in order to get through this somehow, Gayle. [Actors] are fraught with insecurities and moments of self-doubt that can lead into self-loathing. And that’s part of the battle — in order to keep that stuff, not just in check, but sometimes to explore it and examine it.”

In other words, even good guys have their demons. By playing complicated heroes, Hanks is telling us something about the inner battles that go on in even the most admirable of people. It’s not the heroism that’s inspiring — it’s the choosing to pursue it that matters. Hanks makes that effort ennobling. If playing the good guy is so easy, then how come nobody does it as well as him?