The World According to Tom

March 03, 2010

To the young Tom Hanks, history was as dull as an algebra equation. For Hanks — a classic baby boomer, born in 1956 — World War II was just a string of long-ago muzzle flashes in black-and-white. Yet he did have a more direct connection to the global cataclysm. His father had been a U.S. Naval mechanic (second class) in World War II. But Amos Hanks wasn't the type to tell his son tales of bravery and sacrifice. "Growing up, I always knew Dad was somewhere in the Pacific fixing things," Hanks says. "He had nothing nice to say about the Navy. He hated the Navy. He hated everybody in the Navy. He had no glorious stories about it."

Occasionally, Hanks enjoyed a war thriller like Battle of the Bulge, but he much preferred the Three Stooges, James Bond and any film with Sophia Loren. Like a lot of Americans, he found memorizing historical facts boring. Because his family was directly related to Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of the 16th U.S. President, he routinely recycled the same short paper he had written about her for easy classroom grades. "My idea of American history was just a course you were forced to take," Hanks says, laughing.

Yet over the past two decades — from his movies Saving Private Ryan and Charlie Wilson's War to the HBO miniseries he has produced, From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, John Adams and The Pacific, which begins March 14 at 9 p.m. — Hanks has become American history's highest-profile professor, bringing a nuanced view of the past into the homes and lives of countless millions. (HBO is owned by TIME's parent company, Time Warner.) His view of American history is a mixture of idealism and realism, both of which have characterized all the work he has produced; he's a Kennedy liberal with old-time values, the kind that embraces Main Street on the Fourth of July. The success of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers turned him into a Tom Brokaw–like spokesperson for the Greatest Generation. When he visits Johnson Space Center in Houston or Fort Bragg in North Carolina, he is feted as if Neil Armstrong had entered the room. He's the visual David McCullough of his generation, framing the heroic tales of explorers, astronauts and soldiers for a wide audience. (McCullough's John Adams has sold about 3 million copies; Hanks' John Adams brought in 5.5 million viewers per episode.) And in the history world, his branding on a nonfiction title carries something like the power of Oprah.

But the context for Hanks' history lessons has changed. Band of Brothers, HBO's best-selling DVD to date, began airing two days before 9/11; The Pacific, his new 10-hour epic about the Pacific theater in World War II, plays out against a very different backdrop, when the country is weary of war and American exceptionalism is a much tougher sell. World War II in the European theater was a case of massive armies arrayed against an unambiguous evil. The Pacific war was mainly fought by isolated groups of men and was overlaid by a sense that our foes were fundamentally different from us. In that sense, the war in the Pacific bears a closer relation to the complex war on terrorism the U.S. is waging now, making the new series a trickier prospect but one with potential for more depth and resonance. "Certainly, we wanted to honor U.S. bravery in The Pacific," Hanks says. "But we also wanted to have people say, 'We didn't know our troops did that to Japanese people.' " He wants Americans to understand the glories — and the iniquities — of American history. How did this shrug-prone comedic actor transform himself into our most ambitious champion of U.S. history? And how is his vision of history shaping the way the past informs and, yes, entertains us?

Island-Hopping in the Pacific
At school, all Hanks remembers learning about World War II was that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, and that the American revenge came on August 6, 1945, when Army pilot Paul Tibbets dropped an atomic bomb from the Enola Gay on Hiroshima. For Hanks, the U.S. armed forces' island-hopping — Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, among other bloody military engagements — was just a blur on a map that seemed impossibly exotic and faraway. "Strange to think that I've become the World War II guy," Hanks laughs. "All my friends had dads who were on the U.S.S. Nimitz or U.S.S. Enterprise or U.S.S. Coral Sea. They lived in naval housing, and everybody who was like a primary caregiver to me talked about the war. But when it came to understanding the history, I nodded off."

Hanks first comprehended just how immense his own deficit in Pacific-theater history was while making Saving Private Ryan. Around that time, novelist Nora Ephron (who wrote the screenplay for Sleepless in Seattle, which starred Hanks) sent him the two-volume, 1,882-page Library of America Reporting World War II: American Journalism (1938 to 1946) as a gift. Hanks grew intensely interested in all things related to the Pacific campaign — not necessarily the big names like Tojo or Ernest King, but the 3rd Marine Division, which was ambushed by snipers at Guam, or the intricacies of Operation Detachment at Iwo Jima. Print journalists like Robert Sherrod (on Tawara) and Ted Nakashima (on U.S.-Japanese concentration camps) were eye-openers. "I went on a reading rampage," he recalls. "There is a fabulous book called The Fall of Japan. I got heavily into William Manchester and John Hersey."

What Hanks absorbed from those caffeinated reading bouts informs The Pacific, which starts with the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and moves straight into the murderous Guadalcanal campaign (August 1942 to February 1943), depicting the harrowing details right down to the dysentery and malaria. Cameras zoom down vulture-like on maps of flyspeck islands; the contrivance provides a nautical atlas for globe-challenged viewers. The true-life stories of Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone are incorporated into the narrative's bloodstream. Eight of its 10 hours rain valor worthy of a Medal of Honor. (If the roughly two hours of romantic sequences of Marines falling head over heels in love seem hokey by comparison, chalk it up to the demands of serial entertainment.) Nearly every prop used in the miniseries is an exact replica. "Steven [Spielberg] and I wanted to provide people with an accurate visual sense of time and geography," Hanks says.

In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg had vividly captured ghostly, pockmarked European ruins in elegantly warped shades of brown, grey and beige. Those drab colors wouldn't do for a miniseries set in the blindingly blue Pacific Basin. Together, Spielberg and Hanks did tests at a Universal Studios back lot to conjure up a faded Hawaiian postcard look. Palm fronds, ripe coconuts and white clouds pop out from the TV screen in a tamped-down Day-Glo way. The cinematic effect is mesmerizing.

Public education was an integral component of Hanks' vision. "We wanted to explain the arc of the Pacific war, the motivation within from the strategic perspective," he says. "So we start with the vast Pacific Ocean from Hawaii, and you just keep going farther and farther west. You get a dramatic sense of what it must have been like to be on one of those battleships. I used to wonder why in hell little Peleliu was in any way, shape or form so damn important. But then when you see how close Okinawa is, well, you immediately understand. Peleliu was a stepping-stone."

Much of the miniseries is based on two evocative World War II memoirs, Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow, but the imaginative energy comes straight from novels like Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones' The Thin Red Line. The result is like Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (both the novel and the made-for-TV movie) on steroids. Hanks and fellow executive producers Spielberg and Gary Goetzman are wrestling with age-old — and current — questions about the barbarity of war: How can Americans ask our young men and women to indiscriminately kill a shadowy enemy and then return to their ordered Coca-Cola lives Stateside?

"It's even worse for our troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan," Hanks says. "At least the Pacific-war soldiers coming back from World War II decompressed on ships for weeks. And then once the troops arrived portside, it was often a long train ride home to Peoria. Today these guys in Afghanistan fight in bloody hell and are flown back in 18 hours. How can they cope with that? How can they suddenly go from Tora Bora to Peyton Place?" Even the legendary Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II, suffered posttraumatic stress disorder after his return from the European theater. During one meltdown, a deranged Murphy held his wife hostage at gunpoint.

For the past decade, Hanks has worked overtime to support the National World War II Museum in New Orleans — a pet project of the late historian Stephen Ambrose, on whose book Band of Brothers was based. On March 2, the museum, which will soon open a Pacific-theater wing, hosted a reception after a local screening of The Pacific, attended by the last wave of old-timers who consider V-J day a personal accomplishment. Wherever Hanks travels, veterans accost him with thank-yous. "It's pretty heady," Hanks says. "But now the Korean War guys have started coming up to me, saying, 'Hey, what about us?' I get good-natured guff from so many veterans saying things like, 'When you going to do something on Vietnam?' And the fact that I hadn't worked on a Pacific War project — forget about it! Those guys would say to me things like, 'If you ain't telling the story of Saipan, you ain't tellin' the story of World War II.'"

History as Entertainment
For an old Saturday Night Live–style comedian, there is a seriousness of purpose about Hanks as history maker. At 53, he has a repertoire that doesn't include anarchy; he's no longer the romantic-comedy clown. In fact, he exhibits a crabbed resentment toward historical amnesia — most notably his own. Echoing McCullough, who rails against American historical illiteracy, the self-deprecating goof in Hanks nevertheless makes light of his own campaign against historical ignorance. While gag lines are still his forte, his new rallying cry is a palm smacking the forehead: "Why didn't somebody tell me that!"

He eventually taught himself. As a teenager, Hanks was a straight arrow wanting to earn a decent paycheck. He believed in the American Dream, and the Vietnam War made him uneasy. The closest Hanks got to protesting Vietnam, however, was privately rooting for the Smothers Brothers, whose show was eventually canceled by CBS because of their antiwar banter. Immune to Berkeley radicalism and too "unhip" — his word — for Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce, Hanks' comedic sensibility tilted more toward Bob Hope. Hanks was so square that he remembers rebuking a peer in his high school government class for saying in April 1974 that President Richard Nixon would be forced to resign. "I was historically smart enough to know that Presidents didn't just quit," Hanks says. "Not in America! That just doesn't happen!"

The horrors of Nixon's Vietnam War strategy hit Hanks while he was working as a bellman for the Oakland Hilton in the mid-'70s. He was often tasked with shuttling guests to and from the nearby airport. Back then he saw the charter planes that periodically arrived filled with frightened Vietnamese orphans escaping totalitarianism. Once Hanks' movie career took off with Big (1988), he desperately wanted to make a first-class Vietnam War film. But by then, a second wave of Vietnam movies was in full swing (Full Metal Jacket and Good Morning, Vietnam came out in 1987), and he couldn't see how to deal with the subject more skillfully than Francis Ford Coppola had in Apocalypse Now or Oliver Stone had in Platoon — or more thoroughly than in PBS's 11-hour 1983 documentary history. In 1994, however, Hanks brought to the screen the impact of Vietnam on his generation in the tragicomic Forrest Gump. While the role earned him an Academy Award, Gump hardly epitomized the brutal nature of Vietnam, about which reporter Michael Herr had written so devastatingly in Dispatches.

But the movie did give Hanks his eureka moment. During filming on Parris Island, he toured the Marine Corps training facilities and was impressed by the rigorous discipline the young Marines followed and the way it drew them together as a group. "Astronauts, test pilots, Army Rangers all adhere to a kind of self-government that is infectious," he says. "They become a spiritual class — part family and part competitive — that's undeniable." These are the attributes Hanks admires — and envies. "The fact is, I have no inner discipline," he says, "and Americans rigorously training to perform public service is inspiring to me."

Depicting their service became the focus of his productions — and if it tended to accompany the big victories in American history, so much the better for each story's appeal. After Apollo 13 came out in 1995, Hanks pitched From the Earth to the Moon to HBO as a hybrid of nonfiction and entertainment, and the network gave him a green light. A couple of years ago, comedian Conan O'Brien presented Hanks with the perfect spoof gift: a painting of Apollo astronauts landing in Normandy.

What differentiates Hanks from the academic past masters is his conviction that the historical experience should be a very personal one. He harbors a pugnacious indignation against history as data gathering, preferring the work of popular historians like McCullough, Ambrose, Barbara Tuchman and Doris Kearns Goodwin. He wants viewers to identify with their ancestors, allowing them to ponder the prevalence of moral ambiguity, human willpower and plain dumb luck in shaping the past. And he wants to be transported back in time, with a Sousa band banging the drum loudly.

As Hanks' star rose in the 1990s, he sought out new sources of what he calls "entertainable historical knowledge." Leon Uris' fact-anchored novels — Mila 18, Armageddon and Exodus — taught Hanks to feel history in a way no high school teacher ever did, but the entertainment level had to be hyperkinetic to hold his attention. It was the same with most academic histories. "The writing is often too dull to grab regular people by the lapel," he says. Ken Burns' miniseries The Civil War, which aired on PBS in the fall of 1990, gave him a sense of how he might bridge that gap. "I watched that with my son," Hanks recalls. "There was nothing but great music married with talking heads, pan and scan of old photographs and get to the creeks at sunset. But I wept at the end of almost every hour of that incredibly powerful entertainment. So I thought there might be some other ways that HBO could also make history interesting for people."

The way he found was to make it a mix of spectacle and drama, drawing on his own cultural influences. It was Jacques Cousteau who first lured a TV-obsessed teenage Hanks to take biology seriously. Cousteau's art was to have the curious viewer ask, How would I fare 20,000 leagues under the sea with a steel scuba tank on my back and a tiger shark circling my underwater cage? "Cousteau was unlike anything else that was on TV, and I was sad when the hour was up," Hanks recalls. "I was uninterested in science class. But boy, did I search the TV-guide listing to find out when Cousteau would be back on the air."

His favorite book as a teen was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which he thought was far scarier than any Hitchcock psychodrama because it had actually happened to a particular family in Holcomb, Kans. "Capote's horror," Hanks says, "has stuck with me." Capote called his work a nonfiction novel — informed by reporting but drawing on the techniques of fiction for its dramatic power. It's a fair description of Hanks' productions, in which historical events and figures are drawn together along fictionalized story arcs, and characters have the psychological interiority of characters in novels.

For an upcoming project, Hanks has obtained the rights to Vincent Bugliosi's controversial Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He is eager to weigh in on America's quintessential murder mystery. (Bugliosi is best known for having put Charles Manson in prison for the Tate murders.) Hanks and Gary Goetzman will act as executive producers, and Hanks hopes the adaptation will air in 2013. He believes the public has been snookered into believing that Lee Harvey Oswald was framed. "We're going to do the American public a service," Hanks says. "A lot of conspiracy types are going to be upset. If we do it right, it'll be perhaps one of the most controversial things that has ever been on TV."

The Kennedy assassination is the fire-breathing dragon of U.S. history, and Hanks seems singularly hubristic about grabbing its tail. Once, when I interviewed Gerald Ford at his home office in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for a book, the ex-President pulled me aside, pointing to that week's incoming correspondence. Mail about his role in the Warren Commission was three or four feet high compared with a measly inch pertaining to his White House tenure. But Hanks is perfectly aware of the beehive he is about to kick over. He seems to relish the prospect.

And he is pleased that The Pacific has fulfilled an obligation to our World War II vets. He doesn't see the series as simply eye-opening history. He hopes it offers Americans a chance to ponder the sacrifices of our current soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. "From the outset, we wanted to make people wonder how our troops can re-enter society in the first place," Hanks says. "How could they just pick up their lives and get on with the rest of us? Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as 'yellow, slant-eyed dogs' that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?"

There's no such thing as a definitive history. But what was once a passing interest for Hanks has become an obsession. He's a man on a mission to make our back pages come alive, to keep overhauling the history we know and, in the process, get us to understand not just the past but the choices we make today.

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and a CBS News historian. His most recent book is The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.

By Douglas Brinkley

Source : Time