Correction appended March 11, 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 Brokawlike 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?