It's no news that Tom Hanks is America as it wants to see itself: brave, boyish, modest, loyal, sometimes bewildered, always kind. The real news is that, like Jimmy Stewart in his later roles, Hanks is starting to become seriously interesting as an actor.
This week, Hanks stars in Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass' account of the real-life hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama in 2009—the first kidnapping by pirates of an American citizen in two centuries. Hanks plays Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips, who was captured and held hostage by the pirates for five days in an enclosed lifeboat, just a few hundred yards from American Navy ships waiting for their chance to strike.
Hanks arrived last week for an interview at the Four Seasons on San Francisco's Market Street, dressed head-to-toe in Johnny Cash black: black sports coat, black shirt and a thin brown leather bracelet studded with small blue gems on one wrist. We convened in an empty ballroom, myself and two long-time colleagues, in which the management had placed some large banquet tables. After sitting down, Hanks' theatrical background shows; his voice fills the room. I haven't been insane about all of Hanks' movies, and I've been fairly rude about a few of them. Forgive me, and believe me when I say that in person, Hanks radiates those qualities you want to see when you view a serious movie star in real life: a great glowing tan, a sense of ageless vitality, health and confidence, a style of unforced courtesy. His talk is saltier than you'd expect. Or maybe he's in a chipper mood because he's just made one of the best movies of the year.
"I felt that in Captain Phillips," Hanks says, "number one, I could explore all the details, which is what I love to do. Number two, the film could look at the true essence of piracy today. It's global organized crime. There are big figures involved in it. It's not just thugs with guns trying to get rich."
Phillips gently reminds us in his memoir, A Captain's Duty, that almost everything we own in America comes here on a ship. I mention to Hanks how odd it is that there haven't been movies about life aboard these container ships.
"I'd like to see a documentary where we'd just follow one container, as it goes around the world and arrives at its destination," Hanks responds, fascinated by what he's learned about the shipping process from shooting the film. "I asked Richard Phillips, 'Do you have those moments where you have a cup of coffee in your hand, and you're watching the sea at dawn, thinking, "Ah, my true mistress?"' He said, 'I haven't done that in 35 years.' The pressures are relentless. He told me, 'I've got to deal with three unions as a captain. Three unions that don't give a shit about the other unions' grievances.' There are constant emails and texts from the shipping company: 'Why are you burning so much fuel? Why aren't you there yet?' And when you get to, say, the port of Mombasa, there's a line of people who have to be bribed with everything from ballpoint pens to $1,500 in cash, just to get the paperwork signed.'"