Tom Hanks really is an amazing actor: after building a career on goofy romantic comedy, Hanks has gone on to successfully play an array of roles and genres so wide, and his portrayals are so convincing and embodying, that it is easy to forget it was actually HIM in Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, the Toy Story movies, Saving Private Ryan, and Cast Away.
Last night on HBO, Hanks’ two most recent performances were on display back-to-back, and while the two characters were similarly portly and humorless, they were at the opposite ends of the moral spectrum, and two more finely calibrated, distinctive, disappear-into-the-character performances by Hanks.
Stephen Spielberg’s extremely entertaining, if somewhat breezy, 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, stars an excellent Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr., the real-life imposter who, upon learning of his parent’s separation, ran away from home at the age of 16 in the mid-’60s and within a four years had impersonated an airline pilot, a physician and emergency room supervisor, a lawyer and prosecutor, and had financed his globe-trotting and status-seeking by becoming an expert in bank fraud, passing $4 million worth of bad checks.
Hanks is almost unrecognizable as the paunchy, bespectacled, New England-accented FBI agent Carl Hanratty – an accountant with a badge – who pursued Abagnale with a singleness of purpose that never lost sight of his target’s youth or his humanity. Some of the best scenes in the movie are the Christmas Eve phone calls between the lonely hunter and the hunted, who realize how much they share and how entertwined their lives are even as they pursue their diametrically opposed agendas.
The movie balances the energized giddyness of a caper flick with the moral imperative by which Hanratty is driven to bring Abagnale to justice, and the hole at bottom of the imposter’s soul that drives him on to ever more audacious acts of impersonation and larceny. Over the course of their chase, Hanratty becomes an unlikely father figure to young Frank, providing him with the moral grounding his own father (Christopher Walken) could or would not.
The film reaches a very satisfying conclusion when Hanratty finally catches Abagnale in France (his mother’s home), and after he is extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to twelve years in prison, Hanratty fights to get Abagnale released to his own custody in order to put his sparkling intelligence (he studied for the bar for two weeks and passed it legit) and unparalleled experience in check fraud to work for the good guys.
We are told in the closing crawl that the pair remain friends to this day and that Abagnale has been one of the world’s foremost authorities in bank security for the last thirty years. You couldn’t have asked for a happier ending under the circumstances, and it’s all true.
Catch Me is a very good and highly enjoyable, if not great movie, but Road to Perdition is something else entirely. Hanks plays a grim, imposing stone killer for the Irish mob, led by an aging Paul Newman, in the greater Chicago area town of Pullman, Ill. Newman is the father Hanks never had, and his own family, wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two young sons, are aware of their dependency upon the old man.
Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) tells a story of loyalty, moral awakening, family ties, and the ultimate hollowness of the criminal life across two extremely tense, tautly-spooled, ravishingly-filmed hours, juxtaposing leisurely tableaus of deeply-rooted interpersonal relationships with jarring, yet inexorable violence that has at its core the rivalry between Hanks, the pseudo-son, and Daniel Craig, who plays Newman’s rapacious, duplicitous, enthusiastically evil biological son.
Hanks appears to be made of stone going about his business, caring if undemonstrative toward his family, until his 12-year-old son, the oldest, stows away in his car and witnesses the brutal, unjustified slaying of another gangster at the hand of Craig – with unquestioning tommygun support from Hanks. This is the catalyst for all that follows, including the flowering of the relationship between Hanks and his son as they seek to survive and right the series of wrongs begun by Craig, another word for which is “revenge.”
Other than a couple moments deep into the film when father and son emotionally open up to each other and the Hanks grin and a few vocal inflections rather startlingly manifest themselves, it never even occurred to me that this “heavy” (literally and figuratively) was TOM HANKS, so finely crafted is his performance and the film as a whole.
This is a very powerful, disturbing movie with the weight of tragedy, and although Hanks does receive redemption by “saving” his son (again literally and figuratively), there is no glib happy ending. Also outstanding is Jude Law as a thoroughly vile killer whose greatest charge comes from photographing his victims.
And I didn’t even mind missing most of SNL – it’ll be repeated anyway. Both films are available on DVD and well worth owning.