The latest collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks, “Bridge of Spies,” came out last week. It’s the fourth time Hanks has played the lead role in a Spielberg-directed film, following “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Terminal” and “Catch Me If You Can.”
Their careers have been fairly intertwined, which is pretty remarkable. Hanks and Spielberg both reside at the extreme tail of the bell curve in their respective fields. This pairing is the cinematic equivalent of teaming Tom Brady up with Bill Belichick, or Starscream with Megatron.
Take total box office gross. According to The Numbers, Spielberg is the top director of all time, and Hanks is the top actor when he’s in a leading role. In fact, it’s not even really close: Movies with Tom Hanks in a leading role have pulled in an aggregate $4.2 billion — $600 million higher than his nearest competitor, Harrison Ford.1 Spielberg films, meanwhile, have also pulled in $4.2 billion, which is about double his nearest rivals, Michael Bay and Peter Jackson.
Sure, each of them has had similar collaborations with other actors and directors: Hanks has starred in four Ron Howard films2 and three Robert Zemeckis projects.3 And Spielberg has another — if slightly more focused — muse in Ford, with the latter anchoring Spielberg’s four “Indiana Jones” films. There’s also Richard Dreyfus, who appeared in “Jaws,” “Close Encounters” and “Always.”
But the Hanks-Spielberg relationship goes deeper. Besides the director-actor collaborations, Spielberg produced two early Hanks films: “The Money Pit” and “Joe Versus the Volcano.” And Hanks and Spielberg co-produced the critically acclaimed series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” cementing their status as the all-time greatest producers of “stuff to give your dad for Father’s Day” for generations to come.
So, now that they’ve put their fourth film in the can, it’s worth looking at how these two guys essentially break the chart. I’ve previously combined box office data from Opus Data and review scores from Rotten Tomatoes to track Hollywood careers, but when you get to Hanks and Spielberg, all those other people amount to peanuts (except Tom Cruise).
Let’s do Hanks first:
Bridge of Tries
Films: “The Money Pit” (1986); “Dragnet” (1987); “The ’Burbs” (1989); “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990); “Angels & Demons” (2009); “Larry Crowne” (2011).
I adjusted the box office data for inflation, to 2014 dollars, and the top-grossing film at the U.S. box office in 2014 — “The Lego Movie” — made $257 million, so let’s set our financial benchmark for a very successful film at the box office at $250 million. This category deals with the movies that made less than $250 million in the United States and Canada and got less than 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Nothing is too shocking here. We have four movies that were made in the first six years of Hanks’s career, which is a time actors are still figuring out what works. What did Hanks figure out? He wanted to be in good movies. And so he stopped — for almost 20 years — appearing in bad ones.
As for Hanks’s two more recent critical flops, you’ve got the terrible sequel to the mediocre Dan Brown page-turner “The Da Vinci Code,” which I imagine was contractually obligated or something, and “Larry Crowne,” a project based on his time in college that Hanks wrote, directed and starred in.
That’s fine! When you are Tom Hanks, you are allowed to do that kind of thing, and people aren’t allowed to judge you because you are Tom Hanks and I don’t see any other Tom Hankses around here, do you? He is a national treasure; we should be nicer to him about “Larry Crowne.”
Bridge of Rise
Films: “Bachelor Party” (1984); “Splash” (1984); “Volunteers” (1985); “Nothing in Common” (1986); “Punchline” (1988); “Big” (1988); “Turner & Hooch” (1989); “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990); “A League of Their Own” (1992); “Philadelphia” (1993); “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993); “That Thing You Do!” (1996); “You’ve Got Mail” (1998); “The Green Mile” (1999); “The Road to Perdition” (2002); “Catch Me If You Can” (2002); “The Ladykillers” (2004); “The Terminal” (2004); “The Polar Express” (2004); “The Da Vinci Code” (2006); “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007); “The Great Buck Howard” (2009); “Cloud Atlas” (2012); “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013); “Captain Phillips” (2013).
These are the movies that succeeded on only one dimension; they either had higher than 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes or made more than $250 million, but not both.
See that? We just rounded up roughly two-thirds of Hanks’s films4 in a single category. I think that’s a record.
We’re setting the box office bar very high here — $250 million is a lot of money! — but what you see by doing that is how few times Hanks has sold out: He’s led just a single high-grossing crap film — “The Da Vinci Code.”
In other words, Hanks is a good actor who makes good movies. A majority of critics have liked 82 percent of Hanks-led movies. That is a hell of a batting average.
Bridge of Prize
Films: “Apollo 13” (1995); “Toy Story” (1995); “Saving Private Ryan” (1998); “Toy Story 2” (1999); “Cast Away” (2000); “Toy Story 3” (2010).
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. All these movies made more than $250 million, after adjusting for inflation, and also were favored by critics. To get right down to it, these are some of the best films Hanks ever made: All of them have a Rotten Tomatoes score of 90 or higher, with two of them getting the nearly unheard-of 100 percent “fresh” rating (Toy Stories 1 and 2). This tier includes the good franchise he worked on — “Toy Story” — and some of the most iconic roles he’s put on film.
But the thing is, Hanks has reached another level:
Bridge of Highs
Films: “Forrest Gump” (1994).
You might ask me, “Why break this category out? A cluster of one is hardly a cluster, right?”
But that is not a conversation we’re going to have. “Forrest Gump” was a really good movie. The real reason we need this category?
I pulled the same data for Spielberg, and you know what? He broke Hanks’s chart. Inflation and a poor 1970s economy can do that. I had to double the scale of the y axis just to deal with what Spielberg’s been putting out in the world. While Hanks has one movie that made more than $500 million after adjusting for inflation, Spielberg has five.
Bridge of Tries
Films: “1941” (1979); “Hook” (1991).
Once again, this is any movie that did bad on both fronts. Spielberg has only two movies in this category! And with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 30, “Hook” is criminally underrated — this is the film that gave us Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, which is perfect and delightful and that’s all I have to say about this.
Bridge of Rise
Films: “The Sugarland Express” (1974); “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983); “The Color Purple” (1985); “Empire of the Sun” (1987); “Always” (1989); “Schindler’s List” (1993); “Amistad” (1997); “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001); “Minority Report” (2002); “Catch Me If You Can” (2002); “The Terminal” (2004); “Munich” (2005); “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011); “War Horse” (2011); “Lincoln” (2012).
These are the movies that were either positively reviewed or made a bunch of money. And — just as with Hanks — let’s appreciate the consistency here: A full 93 percent of Spielberg-directed movies have a favorable Rotten Tomatoes rating. This category is home to three of Spielberg’s highest-rated films — “The Sugarland Express,” “Schindler’s List” and “Catch Me If You Can” — as well as two collaborations with Hanks, the latter film as well as “The Terminal.”
Bridge of Prize
Films: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984); “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1987); “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997); “Saving Private Ryan” (1998); “The War of the Worlds” (2005); “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008).
Once again, these movies made between $250 million and $500 million and got a positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
This selection rubs me the wrong way, though: It basically contains three movies that, personally, I vehemently disagree with Rotten Tomatoes on, which is fine because online ratings are hard and people are allowed to have different opinions. But it just feels peculiar that “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (78 percent fresh) and “The War of the Worlds” (74 percent) are up there with “Saving Private Ryan” (92 percent) — Spielberg and Hanks’s most revered collaboration — as well as the good “Indiana Jones” movies.
But, hey, I’m not a critic. Also, “The Lost World” deserved a higher rating than 52 percent; it’s not often that my people get a mathematician as a leading character. “The Lost World” also featured the platonic ideal of Spielbergian dramatic tension. I still have nightmares about that scene with the cliff, which means that Spielberg did his job.
I will defend “The Lost World,” blatant cash grab that it was, to my dying breath. [Editor’s note: “The Lost World” was a bad movie.]
Bridge of Highs
Films: “Jaws” (1975); “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977); “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981); “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982); “Jurassic Park” (1994).
Five movies! Five movies that made more than $500 million at the box office, adjusting for inflation. That’s absurd that one dude did that. And all five have a 93 percent Tomatometer rating or higher.
This cluster starts during the last breaths of the “New Hollywood” era (from the end of the 1960s to sometime in the 1980s) people always talk about, when insane studio executives threw lots of money at promising young artists, and those artists came back with “Jaws” and “Star Wars” and “The Godfather” and a bunch of other great works. It also ends with Spielberg’s distillation of a scientific horror film, “Jurassic Park,” one of the biggest blockbusters of all time and one of the films that firmly established the studio system.
The whole point of this exercise is not to say that “Bridge of Spies” is destined to be one of Spielberg’s or Hanks’s best films, although the reviews are absurdly good and it had a decent opening weekend. Instead, the goal is to recognize that we have the privilege of being on this Earth while two of the best people at making movies are, well, still making movies. More wonderful still: They’re making them together. There aren’t a lot of collaborations as fruitful as Spielberg and Hanks.
CORRECTION (Oct. 21, 1:36 p.m.): A previous version of this article described the wrong movie as Spielberg’s distillation of a scientific horror film. It was “Jurassic Park,” not “Jaws.”
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