Douglas Brinkley: History According to Tom Hanks





[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.]

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."...

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?...

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?...

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....

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....


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