Hanks has starred in a bevy of travel-gone-wrong movies—and the deadlier the detour, the bigger the box-office returns.
By now, everybody knows Tom Hanks is "the ultimate Everyman of our age." More than three decades into an acting career littered with Oscars, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards, his abiding humility, all-American approachability, and normcore seriousness of intent have effectively beknighted the star as a modern-day Jimmy Stewart.
What tends to receive less attention, however, is a motif in Hanks' filmography that can fairly be described by a Latinate term I just made up: transit interruptus. In film after film and role after role, the actor creates exquisite drama by playing guys who set out on a journey with the best of intentions—but epically fail to reach their destinations. For example: Hanks' ripped-from-the-headlines biopic Sully, which arrived in theaters Friday and soared to an estimated $35.5 million box-office haul over the weekend, becoming the highest grossing post-Labor Day September opener in Hollywood history. In the film, Hanks plays Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the fighter pilot-turned-airline pilot who heroically crash-landed a disabled jet—which had lost power in both engines after colliding with a flock of Canada geese—in New York's Hudson River, enabling all 155 passengers aboard to escape with their lives.
But Sully's hair-raising IMAX water landing is far from the only time a Hanks character's travel has been impeded by fate, circumstance, armed conflict, or plain old shitty luck. Curiously enough, a certain calculus of disaster governs these travels, too: The more screwed-up and dangerous the journey Hanks undertakes onscreen, the more money and more critical acclaim his movies seem to take in.
Herewith, a definitive guide to Tom Hanks' Cinematic Travel Nightmares.
The Terminal (2004)
The Traveler: In this Spielberg-directed dramedy, Hanks plays Viktor, a non-English speaking tourist from a fictional Eastern European country, who spends nine months living inside a terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy airport. A bureaucratic mix-up bars him from entering the country but also prevents Viktor from going home.
Chances of survival: 9%. Horrible for his hopes of seeing any kind of lasting peace in our time, but catnip for the Hanks Travel Disaster Matrix.
The Hero's Journey: A fish out of water although he may be, the character uses his savoir faire, charm, and survivor's instinct to become master of his fluorescent-lit, Muzak-saturated domain, evolving into a kind of folk hero for the minimum-wage earners, emigrants, and ethnic minorities who befriend Viktor along the way.
Chances of Survival: 100 percent. Sure, departures lounge seating hardly makes for a restful night's sleep, and sustained airport food-court dining can wreak havoc on a guy's cholesterol. But it's not like Viktor faces any kind of mortal threat inside JFK. Hence The Terminal's lackluster returns on the Hanks Travel Disaster Matrix.
Domestic gross: $77.8 million
Cast Away (2000)
The Traveler: He's a man in perpetual motion, a time-obsessed FedEx exec who circumnavigates the globe troubleshooting package delivery issues. Until, that is, the cargo plane in which he is traveling plummets from the sky, leaving him stranded on an uninhabited desert island in the South Pacific with only a volleyball named Wilson for company.
The Hero's Journey: Hanks' physical metamorphosis for the disaster drama is startling; his hair grows long, he drops a ton of weight, grows a weird beard, and takes to wearing a loincloth. But even as the character's hopes of rescue ebb and flow, Hanks' dramatic presence remains enormous; he's basically alone onscreen for about two-thirds of the film, and netted an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Chances of Survival: 50-50. Hanks' castaway island has any number of positive attributes: cooling trade winds, azure waters teeming with fish, an unending supply of coconuts that could theoretically keep him alive for years. But absent some desperate gambit to escape this tropical hell (like the one he eventually devises), the character's odds of riding out the remainder of his days alone in paradise shoot up to around 93 percent—a fate arguably worse than death.
Domestic gross: $233.6 million
Captain Phillips (2013)
The Traveler: Another ripped-from-the-headlines biopic that finds Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips, a merchant mariner whose container ship the Maersk Alabama is hijacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. He's basically your next-door neighbor staring down a horde of wild-eyed, khat-chewing buccaneers in one of the most dangerous shipping routes in the world.
The Hero's Journey: Phillips orders his crew to hide in the engine room while offering himself up to capture—the pirates expect a multi-million-dollar ransom payday from their shipping company. But after an unsuccessful escape attempt, the captain ultimately resigns his fate to a higher power: the Navy SEALs responding to the emergency.
Chances of Survival: 45 percent. Phillips' odds plummet initially thanks to his demonstrated ability to piss off pirates, but American military might re-shifts the balance of power to all but ensure a happy ending (albeit a lower score on the Hanks Travel Disaster Matrix).
Domestic gross: $107 million
Apollo 13 (1995)
The Traveler: In this Ron Howard-directed docu-drama based on real events, Hanks portrays astronaut Jim Lovell, mission commander of America's third Moon landing—an aborted mission that became a struggle for survival when one of the spacecraft's liquid oxygen tanks exploded.
The Hero's Journey: "Houston, we have a problem," Hanks memorably intones as the ship's emergency warning system lights up like a Christmas tree and the ship basically runs out of gas and air some 200,000 miles above the earth's surface. The chummy family guy—who would have been first to walk the moon, had things turned out as planned—spends the rest of the movie turning impending disaster into a uniquely American triumph of determination and courage.
Chances of Survival: 41 percent. Apollo 13 amply demonstrates the rudimentary technology and limits of human competence that doomed the mission. But let's face facts: If you're an astronaut facing the cold oblivion of outer space death, there are worse people to have in your corner than the brightest minds of NASA.
Domestic Gross: $179 million
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The Traveler: Going behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France for Steven Spielberg's unforgettable World War II epic, Hanks portrays Army Ranger Captain John H. Miller—yet another captain!—who leads a small platoon of hardened grunts through battlefield carnage to rescue the surviving member of four servicemen brothers killed in action.
The Hero's Journey: He arrives onscreen John Wayne-like, seemingly inured to the death and destruction around him. But as the bodies pile up, most notably those of his own platoon, Miller reveals the trembling hand and trembling heart that govern his actions. A former English composition teacher and local baseball coach—an American everyman if there ever was one—he's haunted by the 94 men who died under his command. Hanks earned his fourth Oscar nomination for the role but lost out to Life Is Beautiful star Roberto Benigni.
Chances of Survival: Nine percent. The character finds himself in the shit at not one but two of France's bloodiest WWII battles: the storming of Normandy Beach and the Battle at Ramelle. Horrible for his hopes of seeing any kind of lasting peace in our time, but catnip for the Disaster Matrix.
Domestic Gross: $216.5 million