The 15 Greatest Tom Hanks Movie Performances

8. Saving Mr Banks (2013) dir. John Lee Hancock

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr Banks plays out for the majority of the film as a wild clash between Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers’ uptight manners and Disney’s more adventurous creative process in creating Mary Poppins. Travers aims to tightly control the Mary Poppins character, the designs of the houses and the costumes, and severely rejects any delineation from the world she has personally created in her Mary Poppins novel.

In comparison to Thompson’s initially disagreeable character Hanks’ Disney appears fatherly, kind, and almost hypnotic in his charm. When Travers first meets Disney an entrancing music booms and Hanks tenderly looks over to Travers while he describes how much he loves the Mary Poppins story.

Charming Travers around to a softer view of the Mary Poppins character and story becomes Disney’s main goal. He bounces around Travers, happily asking to walk with her, or listening to her complaints about the plot and narrative, aiming to better understand her cynicism and bitterness.

Hanks portrays Disney as an amicable boss who respectfully listens to his employees and their concerns, and enjoys late night singing with his writers. Moreover he understands Travers’ reservations in giving up Mary Poppins sharing his history of holding on to his own Mickey Mouse character.


7. The Terminal (2004) dir. Steven Spielberg

The Terminal

Steven Spielberg directed The Terminal in which Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a Krakozhian man travelling to New York only to be denied entry to America. However upon trying to catch a plane back home he is told he is unable to fly as he has now become stateless and consequently Viktor’s new home becomes New York’s Jon F Kennedy Airport as he is forbidden to leave the site.

The majority of the film portrays Viktor’s limbo state as an isolated man amidst huge crowds of ever-changing flight passengers. Fortunately he finds a job as a contractor within the airport after he beautifully fixes up a broken wall and so is able to earn money while he sleeps in different spots around the airport. He also falls for Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and eventually shares with her his reason for travelling to New York City.

Throughout their increasingly affectionate relationship, Amelia resolves to help Viktor accomplish his task of collecting a musician’s autograph. Whilst confined to the airport however Viktor creates a remarkable life for himself. He befriends passengers and offers his assistance, attempts to set up members of the airport staff on dates, and repairs parts of the airport.

Viktor’s strong accent creates frequent opportunities for misunderstandings and miscommunications and Hanks’ skilful timing emphasises the hilarity of these moments. The film draws to a bittersweet close mostly because of Hanks’ skill at creating an amicable, genuinely caring, and innocent character, the unlucky victim of changing politics.


6. Toy Story (franichise) (1995-2010) dir. Jon Lasseter/ Lee Unkrich


Tom Hanks voiced Woody in Pixar’s first full length feature film Toy Story which has come to be considered as one of the best animated films of all time. Following the film’s success Tom Hanks reprised his role in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and is rumored to star alongside Tim Allen (voice of Buzz) again in Toy Story 4 predicted to be released in 2017.

Originally Billy Crystal (voice of Mike Wazowski in Monsters Inc) was approached to voice Buzz but turned the role down, and has gone on to publicly state he regrets his decision to not star in this animated buddy film.

In the film, Woody is Andy’s favourite toy and an undeniably charming leader of the other toys in Andy’s bedroom. Interestingly, the character of Woody had to be dramatically rewritten when he was deemed too mean by Pixar director John Lasseter, and during a voice recording Tom Hanks labelled him a jerk.

In the final cut however, Woody holds the champion spot in Andy’s heart and is likeable enough for the other toys. The toy hierarchy is suddenly abolished however when Andy is gifted an astronaut toy Buzz Lightyear for his birthday who seems to usurp Woody in the hearts of both Andy and the other toys. Woody thus comes up with a plan to remove Buzz permanently from Andy’s life.

This was Tom Hanks’ first animated role but it’s impossible to tell; his voice skills bring Woody to life in such a manner it is difficult to imagine any other actor taking the role. He vocalises Woody’s quick-changing emotional state with ease, from proud to jealous, sedate to angry, and in one notable reaction between Woody and Bo Peep, flirty.

Despite Woody’s early diabolical intentions, which regardless of the re-write remain pretty bad, Hanks makes Woody likeable, his charming voice helps to make Woody empathetic particularly because Hanks’ makes him sound so believable when he apologises to Buzz. It is Hanks’ skill in his Woody role that helped endear Woody and indeed the Toy Story franchise to audiences worldwide, helping Pixar grow into the hugely successful company it is today.


5. Forrest Gump (1994) dir. Robert Zemeckis

Forrest Gump (1994)

The IMDB cites Forrest Gump to be the 13th best film of all time and for his role of Forrest Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film portrays several decades of Forrest’s life in which Forrest bears witness to or directly influences major parts of American history between the years 1940 and 1980. The film used special effects to place Tom Hanks into remarkable scenes using old footage such as meeting John F Kennedy.

The film begins with a grown-up Forrest cradling a box of chocolates while he waits for a bus to visit his life-long love Jenny although this fact is not revealed until toward the end of the film. Instead Forrest begins to describe his formative years to passing strangers and begins with his life as a growing boy in which he is prescribed leg braces and is identified as exhibiting below average intelligence. He details the first time he meets Jenny, a little blonde girl, on the school bus and how they quickly developed a lasting friendship.

As he grows up Forrest becomes involved with a stream of amazing events, he wins a scholarship to the University of Alabama, meets John F Kennedy, fights in Vietnam (where he attempts to rescue his whole platoon), influences John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’, exposes the Watergate scandal, and earns a considerable amount of money with his shrimp company. Throughout his life however Forrest has loved Jenny and despite rejecting his marriage proposal Jenny and Forrest sleep together for the first time before she disappears.

Later in the film he discovers she bore his son and Hanks’ acting ability particularly shines through in this moment of meeting his son for the first time. Hanks captures the wealth of confusion, love, fear, and concern that the Forrest character is able to portray and heart-wrenchingly inquires after his son’s intelligence level.

Hanks’ voiceover throughout the film also portrays his gifted voice acting and as the film cuts from moving to humorous scenes Forrest remains the audience’s guide throughout the film. Hanks’ Forrest stands out as likeable and extraordinary throughout: a testament to Hanks’ character development.


4. The Green Mile (1999) dir. Frank Darabont

The Green Mile

The Green Mile is often cited as the best adaption of a Stephen King novel rivalling The Shawshank Redemption. Tom Hanks stars as Paul Edgecomb a prison officer in charge of several inmates facing the death sentence in Louisiana in 1935. At the start of the film, an elderly Paul (played by Dabbs Greer) becomes emotional when watching the 1935 Fred Astaire film Top Hat and resolves to tell his story behind his emotional turmoil.

Hanks is first spotted as the younger Paul as he suffers with a fierce urine affection in the swelteringly hot Louisiana summer. Paul is one of the several guards in charge of the inmates, but stands apart from the other professionals by sympathising with some of the prisoners.

In particular the film focuses upon the growing relationship between Paul and a new inmate John Coffey (the late Michael Clarke Duncan), whose tremendous size initially portrays him as a trouble-maker and a threat to the guards. His shy demeanour and caring nature is quickly established however when he cures Paul of his urine infection and brings a mouse back to life. Hanks plays Paul’s astonishment at these miraculous acts in a subtle manner that further endears the audience to Coffey.

In fact it is Hanks’ gentle amazement at this initially foreboding looking character that frames Coffey in an increasingly amicable manner (on top of Michael Clarke Duncan’s own excellent performance) and it is their relationship as professionals and friends that becomes one of the most interesting aspects of the film.

As Paul battles with the desire to remain professional and accepting Coffey’s execution, Hanks imbues this role with an excruciating sense of professional despair that Paul is unable to overturn Coffey’s conviction. Hanks portrays Paul’s acceptance of Coffey’s impending death with a subtle turmoil that reveals itself in Hanks’ heart-breaking facial expressions.

This is one of Hanks more subtle roles but one that loses none of his exquisite character development or portrayal of a range of emotions and this can be witnessed in the beautiful scene when Paul asks Coffey for the details of his last meal. In one of the last interactions between inmate and guard, Paul breaks and asks Coffey how he can live with himself knowing he will put to death the innocent Coffey.

Hanks portrays a rawness to Paul’s character that has since been held back but reveals it in this poignant moment showcasing Hanks heart-wrenching skill of timing and effective character development.


3. Philadelphia (1993) dir. Jonathan Demme

Philadelphia (1993)

This is perhaps Tom Hanks’ best known performance and for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett a top-shot lawyer at a major law firm in Philadelphia. He is portrayed as being highly skilled and shows remarkable expertise, the heads of his law firm consequently admire him and chose to assign Andrew to their most important case. Andrew however has concealed the fact that he is gay (his partner is played by Antonio Banderas) and suffers from AIDS.

Just prior to the big case, one of Andrew’s bosses spots a purple lesion upon his forehead a symptom of the AIDS virus and later an important document from the case goes missing only to opportunistically turn up in an inconceivable drawer. Andrew is fired with his bosses citing his negligence over the case and misplacing the important file. Andrew however suspects they guessed he suffers from AIDS and have illegally dismissed him.

After asking nine different lawyers to take on his case of suing his ex-employers he appeals to Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) a homophobic personal injuries lawyer who advertises his services on television and hands his business cards to anyone he sees his physically injured. Miller rejects Andrew’s case only to re-approach him when he sees Andrew, now much sicker, working stolidly at the library compiling his case on his own.

The rest of the film explores Miller’s changing relationship to Andrew as he navigates his feelings of deep-seated homophobia and growing sympathy for Andrew. Tom Hanks portrays the increasingly debilitated Andrew in a moving, respectful, and compassionate manner whom remains dedicated to his case until the end. In Andrew’s most emotional scene, he dances alone to operatic music after a party, slowly swinging his IV drip while an affected Miller watches on.

In a rare moment behind Andrew’s cool professional exterior, Hanks portrays Andrew’s hidden deep hurt through his physicality. It is through his contorted and strained facial expression, inscribed with pain and loss, that the audience and Miller share an intimate look into Andrew’s grief at his fatal illness.


2. Captain Phillips (2013) dir. Paul Greengrass

Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks dazzles in his role of family-man Captain Richard Phillips; a sea Captain in charge of a container ship travelling from Oman to Mombasa. When travelling past the coast of the Horn of Africa the ship is tailed by Somali pirates travelling in two boats. The Somali pirates are under orders from their bosses to take control of Phillips’ ship and bring it back with them.

Phillips’ successfully frightens one of the boats away but the next day four Somalians return, board the ship, and begin searching below the decks for the ship’s crew. After a tense deal is brokered Captain Phillips is taken hostage by the four Somalians in a life boat who resolve to hold him to ransom in order to bring more money back to their bosses to make up for failing to return the ship.

Throughout this first section of the film Hanks establishes Phillips as a smart family-man whose main concern is to protect the lives of his crew members. Whilst portraying Phillips as a man of control Hanks also uses his wide staring eyes and shaking body to reveal Phillips’ fear and acute attention to the dangerous situation.

When trapped in the lifeboat Hanks’ posture changes; his body is bruised, dehydrated, and exhausted and Hanks shows the physical exertion and constant fear are slowly debilitating Phillips. Hanks’ best moment however is upon being treated for his injuries and waking up to the effects of shock. He struggles to understand the nurse’s words, shakes, and struggles to hold back the tears in an amazing performance of visceral shock.


1. Castaway (2000) dir. Robert Zemckis


Simply, this is Tom Hanks at his acting best. His body transformation for this film is well known; he reportedly gained around 50 pounds before filming and then in year-long hiatus lost all that weight and more to the point he developed gout. He also grew out his beard to better resemble a man stranded upon an island for over four years.

Aside from his body transformations, it is his skill at portraying a deeply lonely and isolated man that sets this film apart and rightly won him a nomination for the Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards. In particular Hanks exceptionally captures Chuck’s creeping realisation that he really is going to spend the rest of his life on this small unpopulated island.

Initially Chuck is a bubbly, if somewhat work obsessed, FedEx employee involved in a loving relationship and Hanks sweetly portrays the deep admiration the couple have one another. After surviving what is portrayed as a very visceral plane crash, Chuck swims ashore to a small island where he begins to learn to survive using a medley of washed-up FedEx packages and the islands natural resources.

At first Hanks portrays a small sense of adventure in Chuck, he’s stranded but surviving but most importantly highly hopeful he will be rescued soon. Thus Chuck rejoices at creating fire by childishly displaying his pride at besting nature with giggles and playing with leaves. It would be easy to imagine being temporarily stranded upon an island far from the daily stresses of routine and the city life would be an adventurous release, and Hanks does not shy away from depicting this in Chuck at the beginning of the film.

However it is his portrayal of Chuck slowly abandoning hope that causes this film to resonate so highly. As Chuck begins to place greater importance upon a volleyball dubbed ‘Wilson’ Hanks unflinchingly and without mockery portrays the great lengths Chuck goes to in order to stave off the rising loneliness.

Hanks’ skill at crafting this relationship pays off with a crushing scene later in the film when Chuck must decide between his raft and Wilson. The loneliness however is not appeased upon returning to Memphis, and in the best scene of the film Hanks expertly delivers a monologue that exposes the depths to which Chuck is haunted by his experience on the island.

Author Bio: Cassice Last is currently studying for a Masters degree in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. She spends most of her time watching or writing about films and the rest hiking and cycling.