Hanks takes 'Captain Phillips" to the next level
Hanks takes ‘Captain Phillips” to the next level

It’s weird to think that we might have reached a point where we take Tom Hanks for granted. He dominated the 1990s with one powerhouse performance after another, but for the past decade or so he’s been cooling his heels, bouncing from one lightweight project to the next.

He never stopped being Tom Hanks: Beloved Movie Star, but with his latest movie “Captain Phillips” he took some time out of his busy schedule to remind us that the guy is one heck of an actor.

Hanks plays the titular Captain Richard Phillips who made international headlines in 2009 when his cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was attacked by Somali pirates. The pirates then took Phillips onto a lifeboat where they held him hostage for several days until he was rescued by Navy SEALs.

The movie is a harrowing, beat-by-beat retelling of the incident that goes way beyond mere reenactment as it probes into the emotions and psychology of people in intense, life-or-death situations, along with the larger forces that brought together a New England sea captain and four young Somali fishermen.

“Captain Phillips” was directed by Paul “Ripped From the Headlines” Greengrass, who if you exclude the two “Bourne” movies he helmed, pretty much only makes movies that are either based on actual events (“Bloody Sunday,” “United 93”) or inspired by actual events (“Green Zone”).

Of course, because he began his career as a journalist and documentarian this only makes sense, but his attention to authenticity and realism serves this movie well as “Captain Phillips” could have easily been overwrought and taken several melodramatic turns.

This matter-of-fact approach not only serves the story well but benefits the actors too as the situations provide the drama and they are free to delve deeper into their characters. This not only allows Hanks to deliver his best performance in years but also draws out great turns from the novice Somali-American actors in the film.

Barkhad Abdirahamin, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali are all very good, giving performances where they are both terrorizing and terrorized; but Barkhad Abdi, who plays pirate leader Muse, is tremendous as he not only holds his own opposite Hanks but shows increasing desperation as the situation spirals further and further out of his control. I would have no problem if he snagged a Best Supporting Actor nod.

I think the efforts the movie takes to humanize the pirates is what makes this such a powerful film. Both the crew of the Maersk and the pirates find themselves in this situation as a result of chasing a payday.

If you were so inclined, you could boil the whole movie down to an exchange between Phillips and Muse where Muse says he can’t give up or he would have to face the wrath of his boss to which Phillips replies, “We all have bosses.”

While “Captain Phillips” is certainly a thrilling, compelling, and exceptionally well-made movie in its own right, it doesn’t make it to the next level without Hanks.

The guy just knows how to hold the attention of the camera and you would be hard-pressed to find another actor who could make an audience feel that much more invested and concerned for Phillips’ well-being than Hanks.

There is a scene near the very end of the movie after he has been rescued where he is being checked out by military-medical personnel that is so raw, so emotional and so honest that I literally found myself holding my breath. It just might be the finest acting moment of Hanks’ entire career.

It will be surprising if Hanks doesn’t nab his sixth Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards for this role, and a Best Picture nomination certainly isn’t outside of the realm of possibility as this is one of the best movies of the year.

At the very least, it was nice for Hanks to remind us what a great actor he truly is. Let’s just hope he doesn’t wait so long to remind us again.

“Captain Phillips” is rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.

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