Fanatic Cinematic: Tragedy Tom and the pursuit of truth

Movie columnist Alex Leininger on how ‘Captain Phillips’ illustrates Tom Hanks’ exceptionally sad specialty

Something about Tom Hanks’ expansive film career is deeply depressing.

AIDS diagnoses. Leading troops during the deadly World War II. Being stranded on an island with nothing but an unresponsive pet volleyball.

It’s pretty morbid stuff. And yet, the legendary actor, now 57, has made quite the career out of it. Just call him Tragedy Tom.

I say tragedy, but I don’t mean the Shakespearean kind, where prepubescent 14-year-olds sacrifice themselves in honor of a week-old tryst, or where a group of conspirators assassinate a power-hungry dictator. I’m talking about tragedies of the mind, where an ordinary man finds himself in an extraordinary situation and becomes a wee bit mentally deranged.

The main difference is this: Shakespearean tragedies are meant for the stage, and aren’t realistic in the modern world, yet Hanksian tragedies are. The realistic aspect of Hanks’ characters are what make him such a brilliant actor, and it’s that specific persona of the “ordinary man” that is so easily relatable to today’s demographic.

When watching a Tom Hanks movie, we get a sense of “wow, that could actually happen.” And oftentimes it has.

Take your own personal tragedies, like the death of a relative or friend, a day without Wi-Fi, a parking ticket or coffee-free all nighter, and imagine Tom Hanks starring as your character (if you’re female, just pretend that you’re not for like four seconds). Watch the beauty of your tragedies unfold before your eyes.

Then again, maybe we should cut him some slack. He’s told us before — “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” — but does he have a friend in any of us? It sure looks like he could use one, especially after his latest gripping adventure.

“Captain Phillips” is a natural extension to Hanks’ tragic timeline. Based on the story of the abduction of Maersk Alabama’s Captain Richard Phillips in 2009, the film chronicles a narrative of captivity and the mental deterioration that follows. While aboard his container ship with the intention to transport cargo to Kenya, Phillips and his crew are hijacked by a group of Somali pirates. Phillips is eventually taken hostage, and must cooperate with the pirates to ensure his own safety.

Adapted to the big screen, the story is harsh, violent and emotionally gripping. The melodrama balances out with the realism. The customarily clear line between protagonist and antagonist is blurred, but in a good, Robin Thicke-less way. The Z-list supporting cast prevents the film from being bogged down by stardom, and the U.S. Navy makes a cameo without belittling the storyline into that of a cliché war epic. That being said, it isn’t the best film of the year.

Critics have been adamantly lauding “Captain Phillips” since its showing at the 2013 New York Film Festival, and many reviews I’ve seen this weekend have hailed it as the best movie of the year so far. I just don’t see it.

It was a fantastic film for many reasons, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve got to first look at its competition. Better than “Gravity”? Superior to “Before Midnight”? It’s arguable, but I wouldn’t go that far.

Secondly, and more importantly, the film’s inconsistencies in portraying the real-life story as it actually happened hinder its appeal. Multiple reports show that the ship’s crew detests the way Richard Phillips is portrayed, and proposes that it was actually his fault the ship sailed too close to the Somali borders in the first place.

I can’t personally attest to the truth of these statements, but if I’ve learned anything from the delightful world of introductory journalism classes, it’s that truth is the most important thing a storyteller has. I could make up a great story about how I’m the “heir of Slytherin” and that I “converse with snakes at the zoo in my free time,” but it wouldn’t be cool because it’s not true. Unfortunately.

Topically, I still fully endorse “Captain Phillips,” because it’s a distinguished film with a fantastic actor at the top of his game. But make sure to be wary about its cinematic liberties, and don’t go off teaching a course on the Maersk Alabama hijacking afterwards.

That could be tragic.

More Stories