Tom Hanks is so dependable as an actor that it's easy to take his work for granted. In his long career, he's built a reputation for himself as the likable everyman who brings humanity and likability to "movie star roles" while still feeling like just a normal guy. That's not to say he doesn't stretch himself now and then, but there's a marked contrast between Hanks' presence as Mr. Nice Guy and, say, Robert Downey Jr's cocksure swagger or Harrison Ford's aloof indifference. Hanks is "the movie star next door" and because an audience relates to him, it frees him to be more vulnerable on-screen than many of his cohorts.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS stars Hanks as the eponymous character, who has been given command of an American container ship that gets hijacked off the coast of Africa by Somali pirates. The first half of the ship sells us on Phillips' professionalism. An early scene features him fretting over his son's work ethic and we later see him administer a gentle tug of the leash to his crew when he becomes concerned they've taken perhaps too long a coffee break. With his cool, even dispassionate exterior, it's easy to buy Hanks as someone who rose the ranks to captain.
Even before the pirates enter the scene, Phillips is running drills to keep his crew afoot. Before long, two skiffs close in on the container ship and though the trailers might lead you to believe the pirate effect a swift takeover, what follows is actually a protracted standoff of sorts as Phillips sends a distress call, quickly snaps his crew into action with counter-measures, orders evasive maneuvers and even manages to scare one of the pirate skiffs into retreat.
Billy Ray's script paints a strong picture of Phillips as the guy you'd want in charge in a crisis. Though some fear does peak through his collected exterior, he remains in control of his emotions. The difference between Hanks' Phillips and that of, say, Tom Cruise, is that even as Hanks is using his wits to send secret messages to his crew and is attempting to undermine the pirates, there is a very real sense that he's not in control.
I've seen a lot of movies where the hero is able to manipulate his captors when he's on his home turf and it's easy to fall into that action-movie mode where the cocky here just bats these bad guys around like catnip. It's easy to turn the lead into Batman at that point, making him too strong a manipulator in the situation. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS turns the tables by giving Phillips his greatest advantage early in the crisis - and then stripping him of it at the movies mid-point, when he's taken captive by the pirates as they escape in one of the ship's lifeboats.
The second half of the film is where Hanks does some of his best work. Outnumbered and without any control of the situation, Phillips is just focused on surviving it. He desperately tries to reason with his captors, convincing them that they're not going to get out of this alive unless they surrender. He shows kindness to a pirate injured in the raid on the ship. Though he doesn't start panicking or freaking out, you can feel the flop sweat on Phillips as he ponders the dark fate that awaits him.
Here's what's remarkable about the script and Hanks' performance in general. Both work together to make us doubt that there will be a happy ending - even though this is based on a true story and we know that Phillips was recovered alive following some exemplary work by the Navy SEALs. It would be hard to list many action films where the audience truly had reason to doubt the hero's eventual survival - and those movies are fictional! There's no "real life" outcome that dictates the survival of Jason Bourne or James Bond.
Director Paul Greengrass does his usual spectacular job of bringing a gritty realness to the events. Not to take away from the incredible achievement that is UNITED 93, but this could be a career best for Greengrass. It's a story that could probably have been easily Hollywood-ized for a feel-good action film, but Greengrass and Ray know how to give even the minor characters complexity and depth. The lead pirate, Muse, is a fully-realized character. Though he does some terrible things, it's hard to think of him as truly evil. Indeed, he's almost pitiable as we see him make choices that only make the situation worse. There's never a point where we root for him, and his hell ends up being his own making, but we understand what drove him to this.
Barkhad Abdi holds his own with Hanks every moment they are on screen together - a feat that's even more remarkable once you realize this is Abdi's first feature film. Here's where considerable praise has to go to casting director Francine Maisler, who discovered Abdi and the other pirate actors in a casting call that saw over 700 people. You can read more about that in this article.
It is in the film's final fifteen minutes where Hanks does his best work. Even as the Navy readies an operation to rescue the hostage, Phillips grows more desperate. Gone is the professional man who did his best to reassure his crew even as they were boarded. And for Phillips, even once the ordeal ends, it's not as simple as stepping onto a Navy ship, slapping his rescuers on the back and saying, "Well that was a heck of a time, wasn't it?" Hanks' portrayal of a man in shock, still coming to terms with how lucky he is to be alive, is a vulnerable picture we don't often see in these films. Even everyman hero John McClane is usually cracking jokes with EMTs by this point in a film.
It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking and absolutely earns its status as one of the year's best pictures.