It seems the National Archives Foundation picked the right recipient for its highest honor, the Records of Achievement Award, granted to individuals “whose work has cultivated a broader national awareness of the history and identity of the United States through the use of original records.” Hanks was recognized for his work as an American storyteller, both on screen as an actor and off screen as a filmmaker, philanthropist and now author.
Nearly 250 history fans feted Hanks on Saturday night with a black-tie dinner and a one-on-one discussion with documentarian and past Archives honoree Ken Burns.
“We must note with pride the exceptional work our honoree has done in the service of the stories of our country,” Burns said from the stage. “He has reminded us in each character he has inhabited, in each gesture and breath, that there are no ordinary people.”
As U.S. Archivist David S. Ferriero noted in a news release, “No actor has covered the span of 20th-century American history as broadly as honoree Tom Hanks.” His roles in films such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13,” “Captain Phillips” and “Sully” have won top honors and brought important periods of American history to modern audiences.
Hanks tells us he takes his de facto role as America’s history professor very seriously.
“You must constantly cherry-pick the accurate, truthful details of behavior and procedure because, for good or for bad, people are going to look at that and say, ‘Oh, that’s what really happened back then,’” Hanks said in a red-carpet interview. “And the more often you get that right, the better service you do.”
A collector of typewriters and a distant relative of President Abraham Lincoln, Hanks is also a voracious reader of history. (He is currently reading “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.”)
To date, he’s devoured every book, piece of film and sound bite he could get his hands on. He also had a private sit-down with Bradlee’s widow, veteran Post writer Sally Quinn, to learn about “other sort of particulars” that can’t be gleaned from paper and video.
When studying a new character, “you try to distill it down to an essence that you can carry with you every day,” Hanks said. “Ben Bradlee knew that he was the coolest guy in the room because he loved his job and he knew he had a power of persuasion. He knew that he was skilled in some ways, but more than that, I think, he loved it more than anyone else did.”
He also touched on current affairs, including the back-and-forth between President Trump and Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) over the contents of a military condolence call to a Gold Star family.
“It just seems like it’s one of the biggest cock-ups on the planet Earth, if you ask me,” Hanks said. “This is a tragedy of the utmost consequence, and it goes much longer beyond who’s going to come out on top of the news story. I think it’s very sad.”
When questioned about the recent sexual abuse allegations again Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, he called it “a watershed moment” not just for women in the acting world, but for women in all industries. “Are we at a place where a new brand of, say, a code of ethics, is going to be put forward, that everybody better wise up and start paying attention to and perhaps obeying? I think absolutely yes,” Hanks said.
He suggested that one look to the Archives for guidance in dealing with today’s tumultuous world.
“People are upset about what’s going on today. They’re furious, they’re frustrated, they’re worked up,” Hanks said onstage. “I say, ‘Well, if you are concerned about what’s going on today, read history and figure out what to do, because it’s all right there.’ ”