Remember that story about how Mr. Rogers? The one about how he was actually the most prolific sniper in the history of the Marines? (Or was it the Navy Seals?) He killed 25 (or 150) people in Vietnam and wore long sleeves to cover the tattoos adorning his arms. It wasn’t true, of course, but wouldn’t that be something?
We want our nice guys to have dark sides because nice guys seem mendacious. Behind that veneer of joviality something sinister must lurk. That’s what Tom Junod wanted when he was assigned to interview Mr. Rogers for Esquire in 1998; instead, the journalist, an acerbic, unsentimental writer (or, less flatteringly, a “cynic”), was startled to find out that Mr. Rogers was seemingly the real deal. Fred Rogers is portrayed by Tom Hanks in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which chronicles Junod’s (here called Lloyd Vogel) revelatory encounter with the beloved television personality, culminating in his seminal 10,000-word essay “Can You Say… Hero?” It seems inevitable that Hanks would play Mr. Rogers. Hanks is America’s favorite nice guy actor. Hanks made his feature film debut in He Knows You’re Alone, a slasher filmed in 1979 on Staten Island, one of innumerable Halloween progenies. Hanks’ character was destined to die badly, but his joviality charmed the filmmakers, so they let him live. The film is stupid, but Hanks, still in the embryonic stage of his career, enlivens the film, delivering inane dialogue with what one can only describe as affability.
It is this affability that made Hanks a star. Think of him as an overgrown child playing a giant piano with his feet; think of his face, the kind that makes a mother proud—it even looks nice when it’s heavily bearded and bedraggled, the look of a man stranded on an island, or swaying in the wind as a lanky Hanks runs, runs, runs across the continental United States, indefatigable, just because it’s a quirky thing to do. Consider his debut directorial credit, the relentlessly pleasant That Thing You Do! (1996), about a one-hit-wonder pop band in the 1960s, and how it’s imbued with the charm and joy that one would expect from a film directed by Tom Hanks. He occasionally displayed delinquent tendencies (consider The ’Burbs, in which he plays a nosy neighbor), but his first time playing someone not superfluously livable was in Brian De Palma’s 1990 flop The Bonfire of the Vanities, loosely adapted from Tom Wolfe’s epochal novel of Reagan-Era rapacity. Even here, Hanks’s nice guy persona usurps the intended cynicism of the role: Hanks plays a Wall Street bond trader who, while driving through the South Bronx (depicted as a forlorn zone of dilapidated buildings and scary side streets) with his gold digger lady friend (Melanie Griffith), accidentally runs over a black teenager. In the novel, Hanks’s character is repulsive; here, he’s remorseful, the first endearing Wall Street rich guy in cinematic history, and it ruins the film. De Palma said, “we tried to humanize the Sherman McCoy character—a very unlikeable character, much like the character in The Magnificent Ambersons… This was a studio movie with Tom Hanks in it.” To viewers, then as well as now, he’s still Tom Hanks playing a guy rather than the guy whom he’s playing.
The rest of the ’90s were very profitable and pleasant for Hanks: A grumpy, has-been coach who rediscovers his love for the game in A League of Their Own (1992); love-sick with Meg Ryan in Nora Ephron’s Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1998); Oscar-winning performances in the well-intentioned Philadelphia (1993) and the excretable Forrest Gump (1994); as an anthropomorphic toy cowboy in Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999), et cetera. In 1998, he starred in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), one of the most violent films ever made. The film’s opening scene, an agonizingly detailed recreation of the storming of Omaha Beach, features Hanks’s face (we don’t know anything about the character yet; he’s simply Tom Hanks), devoid of his usual genial smile, staring stoically at the bodies being torn asunder all around him. Since he is Tom Hanks, we know that he will survive the battle while the nameless droves of young Americans are ravaged by bullets. Young men are shot and incinerated, they explode, die screaming, while Hanks, shell-shocked and useless, watches. (Hanks does get a tear-inducing death scene at the end of the film, though, which comes as a surprise, as we have been goaded into assuming that the elderly man in the film’s opening is Hanks.)
Hanks is even lovable when he’s shooting people. He tries very hard to give a capital-S Serious performance in Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition (2002), as a Prohibition-era hitman who goes on the lam with his son, but it is a self-conscious effort, this crestfallen killer, a man straining for sorrow. One cannot watch the film and not see Tom Hanks. The film is immaculately shot (the photography, by Conrad Hall, recalls the crepuscular lighting and ruined innocence of Edward Hopper’s paintings), yet overly mannered; any semblance of genuine human emotion is suffocated by persnickety precision. The same year, Hanks portrayed a straight-laced FBI agent named Hanratty in pursuit of a teenage con artist named Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hanks smartly plays Hanratty in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can as a milquetoast kind of guy, not particularly interesting or eccentric, while DiCaprio is all charisma and charm as Frank revels in the chase and chicanery.
Hanks is deft at depicting heroes, man of valor and morals—as a lawyer in Bridge of Spies (2015), a newspaper editor in The Post (2017), an airplane pilot in Sully (2016), and as the title character in Captain Phillips (2013), a vaguely jingoistic film about a ship hijacked by Somali pirates that chooses to make a story about the desperation caused by a capitalist system into a story of one man’s greatness, that one man being Phillips (of course). But Hanks doesn’t play Phillips as a hero—he plays him as a man, fallible, fragile, no better than anyone else. In the final scene, which lasts three minutes, Hanks gives his rawest, most unguarded performance: Phillips, having survived the ordeal, now considered “a hero,” is being treated by medics. After remaining stony-faced and stable in front of his crew and the pirates, he finally breaks down. Mottled with blood, some of it his, he quivers, he stutters, he cries, and the pointlessness of the whole endeavor becomes painfully obvious. His bravery, a performance, gives way to shivering vulnerability.
Hank’s performance as Mr. Rogers is as far removed from the aching humanity of Captain Phillips as possible. It could have been parodic, a nice guy aping a nice guy whose tics and aesthetic are by now part of the cultural consciousness, a gangly guy in the cardigan with the sanguine voice, as iconic as Frankenstein or Sherlock Holmes. Hanks has played men playing men before. Consider his duplicitous conman in The Ladykillers (2004), inveigling an old woman with his Southern charm, and his eclectic performance as a soul that manifests in different corporeal bodies (including, notably, an angry Limey) in Cloud Atlas (2012). Here, he plays Fred McFeely Rogers playing Mr. Rogers. He marries the ostensible artifice of Rogers’s persona with the real flesh-and-blood man. Lloyd, an astute investigative reporter, has trouble ascertaining what is genuine and what is performance, but the beauty of it is that Hanks doesn’t try to play Mr. Rogers the character any different from Fred Rogers the man. There’s a placidity to the performance, his every utterance like a koan, which is, to be honest, a little ridiculous—he was trying to teach lessons to children, and he approaches Lloyd the same exact way, playing with puppets, speaking in funny voices, asking terse, tender questions. Hanks assiduously emulates the mannerisms of Mr. Rogers, of course, but that’s just the technical side of his craft; the beauty of the performance is how it’s so confidently superficial, a performance of exteriors and facades; we have no idea what’s going on inside of Mr. Rogers, and neither does Lloyd. He’s at once intimate yet distant, leaving it up to his to decide who Mr. Rogers really is.