Hanks for the Memories: Bridge of Spies and the Best of Tom Hanks’ Movies

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Bridge of Spies, which opens Friday, has been getting more buzz than a hive full of yellow jackets, and even the film’s trailers are gripping and intense. On top of that, throw in the fact that it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, and we’ll be in line with our popcorn ready by about, oh, Friday morning.

But for us, the real draw of this movie might be its leading man, Tom Hanks. The Spencer Tracy of his era, Hanks places amongst the top Hollywood stars of any era. Eminently likeable, tremendously charismatic and one of the most genuinely gifted performers in show business, Hanks has left a trail of Oscar-winning and Oscar-worthy performances in his wake. And even as he approaches 60 (an age at which many of his contemporaries are being relegated to supporting character roles) his name at the top of the movie poster guarantees not just fine work from a leading man, but a high-quality film as well.

So as we wait hank-xiously for his latest outing, let’s take a look back at some of our favorite Tom Hanks roles (and scroll to the bottom for a poll on your:

Big (1989)

While it was by no means his first movie role (it was, in fact, his 10th), Big was arguably the first film that made Hollywood stand up and take notice of Hanks as a top draw. The movie landed Hanks the first of his five Oscar nominations, and the scene where he dances on the giant floor piano at FAO Schwarz is one of the most iconic of its time (admit it, you thought about it the moment you read the movie title, didn’t you?).

A League of Their Own (1992)

Hanks’ turn as Jimmy Dugan, the drunken, foul-mouthed manager of the Rockford Peaches, is actually a supporting role, but it alone is worth the price of admission. Seldom do you see an actor having more fun on the screen, and it serves as a great reminder (especially now, during the major-league post-season), that there’s no crying in baseball!

That Thing You Do! (1996)

Another supporting part for Hanks, but this time in a movie that he wrote and directed. Kudos also go the Hankmeister for finding a Hanks look-alike, sound-alike and act-alike to play the pivotal role of Guy “Shades” Patterson, the drummer for the Wonders, a role that Hanks himself certainly would have played himself if the movie had been made earlier in his career.

Philadelphia (1993)

Hanks stunned the movie-going public when he dropped his comic persona and played Andrew Beckett, a big-time lawyer who is fired by his firm when it’s discovered that he’s contracted AIDS. The movie was the first mainstream Hollywood film to tackle the issues of homophobia and the AIDS epidemic. It also garnered Hanks the first of his two Academy Awards, one for which he made an acceptance speech that may be as moving as the film itself.

Apollo 13 (1995)

When Hanks, playing real-life astronaut Jim Lovell, uttered the words “Houston, we have a problem,” we all held our breath (Apollo 13 might have been the movie that created the most suspense ever in a story for which we already knew the ending). His turn as Lovell was the prototypical Hanks-as-all-American-hero role, and only made us root for the astronauts more.

Cast Away (2000)

A grueling, heart-wrenching feat that saw the actor transform himself from a pudgy FedEx systems engineer to a scrawny, desperate castaway struggling to survive on a desert island, Hanks’ work in this film (which amounts to a solo performance taking up the majority of the movie’s screen time) is perhaps his most compelling and mesmerizing ever. The performance garnered Hanks his fifth Oscar nomination.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

In my view, this is Hanks’ finest work in Spielberg’s greatest film. Saving Private Ryan is at times difficult to endure, but Hanks’ Captain John Miller is the steady, reassuring presence who leads his soldiers (and the audience) into battle. Miller is the emotional and moral rock upon which the story rests, but he’s also a man who is damaged in ways that only the audience can see—and only an actor of Hanks’ skill can convey. When Miller tells Private Ryan to “earn this” during the film’s climax, he tells us all to earn the life we live thanks to the sacrifice of ordinary, courageous men like Captain Miller himself. Since the order comes from someone we trust, admire and love, it’s taken to heart that much more.

Honorable mention:

Saving Mr. Banks (2013), Catch Me if You Can (2002), The Green Mile (1999), Toy Story (1995), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Dragnet (1987)


Recommended reading:

Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell (Broadway Books, 2010)

giles-whittell-bridge-of-spiesThe bridge at Checkpoint Charlie—the infamous crossing point between East and West Berlin—plays a central role in the new Hanks Cold War-era film. This book tells the story of three extraordinary men (a British-born KGB agent, an American graduate student mistakenly identified as a spy, and U-2 pilot Gary Powers) and the intense political pressures that led to the first and most legendary prisoner exchange between the East and West in 1962.


Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.

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