There are certain genres of film that we approach with extreme prejudice, one of which being the thriller. The terminology alone suggests something that glues you to the edge of your seat and robs you of your suggested dose of oxygen, but that might not tug at the heartstrings or get any major new thoughts or questions brewing. But a good thriller, one that really works, cannot exist without the emotional or intellectual weight we’d readily assign to our favorite dramas. A good thriller is not simply well-shot footraces across Boston rooftops or ominous music booming over an ad-hoc gunfight. A good thriller comes when you have a character — someone you’ve grown to know and understand and care about and really want to see make it out of this whole ordeal okay — like Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.
As the titular seaman charged with delivering food and goods to underfed African civilians and a New England-affected family man alike, Hanks commands every ounce of our attention and love with every humble, humane gesture. As a professional, he’s a dutiful sort, out to do a job he believes in, and playing the amicable leader to his troupe of fellow sailors. As a man, he regrets every second that he’s not back in Vermont with his wife (Catherine Keener) and growing children. And as a hero — which he eventually is called upon to be when a boat of desperate, impoverished young men from Somalia board his ship with guns in hand, hoping for the biggest cash-out they can manage — he is the very best kind.
Hanks doesn’t play Richard Phillips with stealth, but intellect. His tactics in dealing with the foursome of gun-wielding pirates aren’t that of a cagey action hero getting off on outsmarting his opponents, but a collected man trying to assuage a horrible situation as best he can. Where most thrillers opt to have their pseudo-James Bonds stay one step ahead of their screen partners and audiences alike, we are right there with Hanks all the way through. We’re not supposed to be in awe of him, but to be empathetic to him. Everything Phillips does, we’re on board. He makes all the right choices, which makes his ultimate incarceration by the pirates to be all the more harrowing.
What Captain Phillips has at its disposal is the best man for this sort of job — having made a career out of being not necessarily awe-inspiring as much as engagingly relatable, Hanks is perfect for the sort of hero a “thriller” calls for: someone in whose shoes we can put ourselves. Sporting an accent that hearkens back to thoughts of cabin vacations, Maple syrup, and Ben and Jerry’s, Hanks carries himself with responsibility, squinting at the world with befuddled wisdom, and lending importance to his every task. And when he’s seized beyond his control, it doesn’t feel like a leading or a distant stranger is in jeopardy.
While the movie rests squarely on Hanks’ shoulders, he shares screen time with the indubitably impressive young newcomers to film who play his captors. Barkhad Abdi leads the team as Muse, a man who has all but convinced himself that he’s a modern day Robin Hood working toward a justice his family and friends deserve. Abdi stays a villain throughout, but never veers too far from feeling himself like a victim — he respects Phillips’ lot, takes his strategic but genuine words to heart, and even seems to resent his own choices at some points. Where the film dips a bit is in its supporting staff: Abdi’s fellow pirates, though acted with similar aptitude by first timers Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, never stray too far from their single dimensions, playing the innocent, the bad bad guy, and the one that steers the getaway, respectively.
Back at the military base assigned to rescue Phillips, the elements are even thinner. It is not only the characters but the scenes in full that feel like they are ripped straight from a high-budget Navy actioner, carrying the ambiance and dialogue of Michael Bay filler scenes. But luckily, we spend the majority of our time with Hanks, contained in the clutches of the conflicted Abdi and the increasingly enraged Ahmed — as long as we’re in their presence, we’re invested.
And this alone tells us what makes an effective thriller: the character — the reason to believe that what’s going on is important. The time-tested Hanks has this skill readily available in every one of his films, with Captain Phillips being no exception. Thanks to him, we don’t just have what we’ve come to think of as your standard thriller. We have a movie that, through its imposing stakes and weight, actually thrills.