What do you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks”? The American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer? Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation? To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez will offer conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave will say Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam will say Hanks for Everything, Tom! At month’s end, they’ll face each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. To paraphrase Forrest: This series is like a box of chocolates. Some of them are dosed with poison.

I’ll give Dave this: Tom Hanks certainly likes being in the driver’s seat, figuratively and quite literally. He often plays a leader and has manned several major vehicles on screen. Since his latest film, Greyhound, finds him behind the wheel of a battleship, it makes sense for me and Dave to conclude our series with Hanksportation movies.

Hanks is such an adorable dork that he probably asked to sit in the cockpit of a plane or steer a boat when he was a little boy. And he probably acted out emergency situations. Well, he nails that in the film I’m about to discuss.

Captain Phillips marks Hanks’ second of three times playing a real-life captain caught in a life-threatening ordeal. Of course, the first time, he portrayed Commander Jim Lovell in 1995’s Apollo 13, and he went on to play Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — the “Hero of the Hudson” — in 2016’s Sully, just three years after Captain Phillips

When Hanks signed on to star as Mister Rogers two years after Sully, satirical articles spread with headlines along the lines of “Tom Hanks Aims to Play Every Decent Man in America.” Honestly, the joke is funny and fair. (Settle down, Dave, I haven’t surrendered yet.) 

Dave argues that Hanks’ proclivity for heroic roles makes him egotistical. I’d say Hanks is simply drawn to ordinary men who rose to the occasion, reached into their hearts and did what they felt was best for everyone. He picks roles based on the kind of person he aspires to be.

In the case of his three captain roles, Hanks doesn’t portray any one of them as a swaggering hero. He sheds light on their fear and pressure. In Captain Phillips, he delivers one of his most devastating, vulnerable performances.

Director Paul Greengrass doesn’t merely infuse the film with a sense of you-are-there immediacy. Working from Billy Ray’s rich, multilayered screenplay, he lingers on moments that put viewers in unexpected shoes.

The film follows the 2009 ordeal of Captain Rich Phillips (Hanks), whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, fell under control of Somali pirates prowling the waters around the Horn of Africa. When they break onto the bridge with guns in hand, Phillips tries to shoo them away with the $30,000 in the ship’s safe. But the lead pirate, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), won’t back down until he has millions. “I’m the captain now,” he says with dead-eyed determination. But we later see the desperation behind his demanding demeanor.

On the surface, you could argue that Hanks cashes in on true stories and delivers simplistic screen versions that highlight heroism amid horror. He seems like the kind of actor who ultimately wants audiences to feel good, right? Think again with Captain Phillips. Right from the beginning, it explores more complex issues. It doesn’t shy away from exposing white privilege in its juxtaposition of Phillips’ and Muse’s morning routines. While Phillips leaves his two-story home and chats with his wife on the way to the shipyard, Muse wakes up in a desert hovel to the sound of shouting and gunshots.

Later on in the film, Phillips judges Muse and the other pirates when he says, “There’s gotta be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people.” Muse replies, “Maybe in America.” Hanks then darts his eyes downward and hangs his head in shame. He shows that the harsh truth of Muse’s comment stings Phillips, and he empathizes with the pirates even as they hold him captive. 

Hanks and Abdi deliver equally intricate performances. They both show fear and anger regarding the dire situation. “You’re not just a fisherman,” Phillips says through gnashed teeth as Muse holds a gun to his head. You can tell he wants to cut Muse to the core, but he’s also holding a mirror up to him in the hopes that the monster staring back will scare him away from the next extreme. In turn, Abdi conveys Muse’s resentment toward Phillips for making him go this far.

The end of the film is hardly the feel-good rescue sequence you’d expect from a Hanks tale of heroism. Covered in blood, Hanks shivers as he boards a Navy vessel. In the medical unit, he captures the disorientation of panic and post-traumatic stress. Shaking, stammering and struggling to focus, he eventually breaks down. The scene aches with authenticity. This harrowing, heartbreaking moment made me realize that Hanks still has tricks up his sleeve. If you watch this scene and call bullshit, hoo boy — that’s cold.

Hanks’ performance in the last five minutes alone leaves you wrecked and disturbed by the notion that a dark cloud will always loom over Phillips’ life from now on. He’s a scarred, haunted hero — inspiring but also tragic. You can tell that Hanks’ heart goes out to this man.

When President Obama awarded Hanks the Medal of Freedom in 2016, he said: “From a Philadelphia courtroom to Normandy’s beachheads to the dark side of the moon, Tom has introduced us to America’s unassuming heroes. He says he just saw ordinary guys who did the right thing at the right time. Well, it takes one to know one.”

It would be easier to buy Hanks as a sleazy showman slinging stories of heroes if he didn’t do anything to honor them offscreen. But, as Obama said, “He has championed our veterans, supported space exploration. And the truth is, Tom has always saved his best roles for real life.”

So, let him steer the damn ship on the big screen. He’s earned it.