“Listen up, we have been boarded by armed pirates. If they find you, remember, you know the ship, they don’t. Stick together and we’ll be all right. Good luck.”
Tom Hanks has rarely failed with a performance and has shown range throughout his career with a multitude of roles that have featured him portraying politicians, a child in the body of an adult, a romantic interest in numerous films, and of course, his iconic role as Forrest Gump. In many regards, Tom Hanks has become associated as a form of Americana; his name being synonymous with American idealism and the American dream. However, while being America’s golden boy, Hanks found himself with roles that weren’t necessarily destructive towards his career, but hindered him from truly conveying the caliber of acting he is capable of. Roles such as Cloud Atlas, The Da Vinci Code and Larry Crowne weren’t poor performances, but they minimized his talent. Hanks occasionally teased higher than average performances, such as his roles in Charlie Wilson’s War or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but even those roles didn’t touch the level of talent he exhibited in previous films such as Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away. It wasn’t until 2013 that Tom Hanks seemingly stepped out of the box he had placed himself within and delivered two separate, but extraordinary, performances. The first was his role as Walt Disney in the film Saving Mr. Banks, which gave him the opportunity to portray the cartoon icon as a charismatic businessman with a colorful demeanor. The glass-half-full attitude he gave the performance was enough to make even the most cynical individual smile, such as his character does with Emma Thompson within the film. Hanks’ performance in Saving Mr. Banks would have been enough to give him critical praise, but it was his performance as Captain Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips that was his true achievement in 2013, and perhaps one of the best achievements of his career.
Captain Phillips is a Best Picture Oscar nominated film that chronicles the 2009 true story of Richard Phillips and the Somalia pirate hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, which was the first pirate capture of an American ship since the nineteenth century. Amongst the culmination of events, Captain Phillips was ultimately taken hostage by the pirates onboard one of the ship’s 28-foot lifeboats. Given the gravity of the situation, this became an international ordeal, to which the American Navy SEALS were deployed in an effort to negotiate with the pirates and rescue Captain Phillips before the lifeboat reached land. The ordeal lasted four days before Captain Phillips was rescued and three of the four pirates were killed.
Despite the versatility of his career, never before had Tom Hanks delivered a performance that wasn’t overtly showy, yet conveyed so much. The closest comparison would come in the form of his role within 1993’s Philadelphia, yet that character’s strong interior core, despite having AIDS, is what made the performance profound with audiences. There was a sentimentality with his performance in Philadelphia, a crutch he didn’t have the luxury of using in Captain Phillips. Instead, Hanks was expected to deliver a restrained performance, yet provide a subtext of emotion he is trying to repress others from seeing. It is a meticulous performance; a type of acting Hanks rarely has done in his career. The majority of his roles have been expressive, almost boisterous in style. Restraint is a difficult behavior for an actor to convey on-screen because many times the viewers fail to notice such traits. In that regard, Hanks’ role in Captain Phillips required him to alter his style of acting; a challenge he accepted and excelled tremendously at.
To an extent, Hanks’ acting is dependent upon the film’s superb script by Billy Ray and the talented direction from Paul Greengrass (who was unfairly snubbed an Oscar nomination for his work with this film). Captain Phillips is a film whose purpose is to merely tell the story as to what occurred in 2009 and use Hanks as the complement to this retelling of the true event. Therefore, Hanks was required to truly integrate himself into the film and true event to become a component of the overall film, opposed to the stereotypical Hollywood film that relies upon the actor and everything falls into place based upon the principle performance. The beauty of Hanks’ performance is that it never leads the film fully, which functions seemingly as a narrative tool in regards to the true life event. The true-life situation was reactionary to Hanks’ real-life counterpart, therefore Hanks’ performance is reactionary to the script and direction. The situation is what formulates the performance, to which Hanks had to adapt his acting to the given environment. Hanks’ willingness to do this further enabled his performance to reflect a form of realism with the role.
The realism Hanks emphasized within his performance crafted his Captain Phillips as an ordinary person, someone audiences could relate to. Much of this is due to Billy Ray’s script, but Hanks used it as a foundational basis for his performance, especially with the film’s opening sequence as he’s driving to the airport with his wife and they are generally discussing life. The concerns they speak of are ordinary in context, but Hanks provides an edge of concern in his tone. This tonal introduction to the character provided Hanks with the ability to portray Captain Phillips in a continually changing world that even he doesn’t fully understand any longer. Once he says his goodbyes with his wife and is aboard the Alabama, his tonal range shifts to an authoritative demeanor, thus this is Hanks conveying to the audience that his character is repressing his internal fears when amongst others. This additionally works with the subtle body language Hanks provides for the character, such as inhaling deeply before entering a room. Hanks has rarely used subtly with his performances in the past, but with Captain Phillips he relies upon miniscule details to define his role.
Hanks needed to establish that realism with his character in order for the situational drama of the film to unfold effectively. Once Hanks’ character is taken hostage, the film narrative is indicative of him, yet he had to retain the character trait of him repressing his emotions, this time repressing fear, which had to be conveyed through Hanks and his interactions with the Somalia pirates in the lifeboat scenes. The true challenge of these scenes, which amounts to over half the film, falls in that they occur in a small enclosed space. Hanks’ character, who is a hostage, is relegated mostly to body language and facial expressions. His character’s dialogue is minimal and his movements are scarce given the situation he is enduring, which is an acting challenge that most actors fail when presented with the acting scenario. With Hanks, he is able to convey strength in silence, yet offered just enough fear to the surface that viewers could understand the fear he is desperately trying not to disclose to his captors.
Yet another form of subtly Hanks provides for his Captain Phillips is his adaptive demeanor once he is a hostage, to which he uses the situation as an opportunity to formulate a sort of relationship between him and his captors in an effort for them to see him as a human being. Hanks is extraordinary in how his voice wavers, clearly in fear, yet not allowing that hesitancy to stop him from creating a bond that could save his life. However, Hanks formulates an escalation of adrenaline at times with his performance, to which when his character’s hopes are tarnished, Hanks expels his repressed emotions in a defeatist style. These instances are further complimented in the verbal exchanges between Hanks and the Navy SEALS, particularly one instance in which his character emotionally shouts to them, “Does my family know where I am?” This furthers the foundation of Hanks’ performance in that his internalized fear is not whether he dies in this scenario, but it is the fear that he will no longer be there for his family. In that sole instance in which Hanks’ Captain Phillips asks about his family, he was able to establish his character’s motivation for survival, which adds another level of subtly to his performance. Added onto that, Hanks was able to interject subtle instances of fatherly protection towards one his captors who is no older than 16 years old. Hanks formulates a sense of protection for this captor and exhibits moments of concern that a father would to his own child. Even in their final interaction he pleads, “You’re just a kid! Just put your hands up!” almost as if a father knowing better would plead to his own son.
The majority of dialogue stems between Hanks and Barkhad Abdirahman’s performance as Muse, the pirate leader. Between them, their emotional range is explored and their humanity is revealed. Hanks’ performance utilizes every exchange he has with Abdirahman by formulating both a connection with him, but also conveying a level of intellectual superiority against his captor. Hanks is careful not to portray these interactions in the form of arrogance or distain, but rather in a challenging context, in the hope his captor will recognize his own hypocrisy. This is especially done in one of the film’s most integral scenes in which Muse is pointing his gun at Phillips, to which Phillips openly disproves a statement Muse had said to him earlier about him and the other captors just being fishermen. “You’re not just a fisherman!” Hanks has his character declare, knowing he is contradicting his captor. However, Hanks doesn’t say this sentence defiantly, but rather in a tone that suggests he is prepared to die and is saying it in the hope this will cause his fate to be reconsidered. This is both expressive and subtle acting that Hanks was able to successfully fuse together.
However the true brilliance of the performance comes in Hanks’ final scene. In a scene in which the camera was solely focused upon Tom Hanks and he was given the creative license to ad-lib how his character would respond to medical questions, Hanks delivered one of the most profound instances of PTSD ever portrayed within a film. Added onto that, his carefully controlled performance is deliberately broken down in this final scene, to which Hanks finally permitted his character to openly express his emotions. The scene is an expulsion of the repression, to which the character can barely maintain his composure any longer. This scene alone places Hank’s role as Captain Phillips as one of the best performances of his career.
Tom Hanks’ performance in Captain Phillips was considered by critics and audiences to be one of the best performances of 2013, with Hanks grabbing nominations with the Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Best Lead Actor. When Tom Hanks didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination for his performance, many cried foul and proclaimed it to be the acting snub of the year. Regardless of whether Tom Hanks received an Oscar nomination or not for his role in Captain Phillips, it was still one of the best performances of 2013 and Tom Hanks’ career.