Since his early heyday as a comedic star in films like Bachelor Party and Splash, Tom Hanks has evolved into one of the most beloved and versatile actors to ever grace the big-screen. Over the years, he has appeared in countless Hollywood classics, earning back-to-back Academy Awards for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. The latter role in particular sparked a catchphrase-filled phenomenon back in 1994 and has remained one of Hanks’s signature roles ever since.
With the release of Sully, Oscar buzz has again started to simmer around Hanks, who hasn’t been nominated for the award since 2001. However, this raises the question of how the Clint Eastwood-directed biopic — which follows the real-life story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroic landing of a plane on the Hudson River in 2009 — compares to Hanks’s earlier performance as Forrest Gump in the Robert Zemeckis classic.
At this point, it’s unlikely that Sully will go on to win Best Picture at next year’s Academy Awards (as Gump did) or come anywhere near the $330 million domestic take of Zemeckis’s film. However, Sully has been earning a strong reception from most critics and audiences, even if it’s proven to be polarizing for some viewers. A great deal of the film’s positive reaction is likely due not only to the adaptation of a major news story from recent past but the marquee value of Eastwood as director. But what of Hanks’s performance itself? Is this another genius turn worthy of his pantheon?
In short, not really. While Hanks goes somewhat against-type with a more understated presence than we’re used to seeing from him, Sully doesn’t feature as meaty or complex of a role as some of his past efforts. The film is too sprawling, alternating between a character study focused on its titular character to a docudrama about what really happened that fateful day. As a result, Hanks himself can feel marginalized at times, and the film’s fairly one-dimensional depiction of how he reacts to the media scrutiny and investigation immediately following the incident isn’t nearly as compelling as Eastwood and his team seem to think it is.
With what he’s given, however, Hanks remains on point and sells the moments well. One scene in particular shows off his ability to convey a range of emotion with a single glance, but audiences never truly feel like they’re on this journey with him like they are in films like Forrest Gump — which was, quite literally, told from the main character’s perspective and remained true to that — leaving Hanks floundering to emotionally ground a story that ultimately doesn’t have a whole lot of narrative juice to begin with.
So is Sully destined to get Hanks a long-awaited sixth Oscar nomination for Best Actor? That remains to be seen. At this stage, it’s a bit too early to call since many of the major players haven’t been released yet. Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea and Joel Edgerton in Loving are currently frontrunners alongside Hanks for the category, at least according to IndieWire. Competition is sure to heat up in the months ahead, possibly leaving Sully and Hanks’s chances in the dust.
Still, the role is a solid enough one that it won’t do any damage to Hanks’s sterling reputation as a box office icon. His filmography is so packed with memorable entries and breathtaking roles that the fact that Sully is simply solid shouldn’t be considered an insult. A very specific combination of acting and material has to truly exist for a star to deliver the magic he or she is capable of, and in the case of Sully, the material simply doesn’t live up to what Hanks can do.
At the very least, the film pays tribute to a real-life hero by giving his story to an actor that audiences the world over imbued with a sense of trust and authority many years ago. His turn as Sully might not come anywhere near Forrest Gump, Andrew Beckett, Captain Miller, Chuck Noland, or even Woody in the long list of indelible Hanks performances, but it is the latest reminder that Hanks is a national treasure largely capable of doing the very best he can with whatever script he’s handed. Let’s just hope that the next one he picks up is more suited to his talents.
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