It has been praised by critics as a thrilling movie and berated by former crew members as grossly inaccurate. “Captain Phillips” has hit the theaters and there has been no shortage of fun things to read about it. Prior to seeing it, several things about the movie attracted my interest. First, I was interested in seeing what director Paul Greengrass would bring to the story. He’s a director that I have a love/hate relationship with. Second, this looked like a role that could equal a comeback of sorts for Tom Hanks.
“Captain Phillips” is a biopic taken from the book “A Captain’s Duty”. It follows the story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama which was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. Tom Hanks plays the title character who tries to get himself and his crew to safety after pirates board his container ship while crossing the Indian Ocean. The film doesn’t waste much time in terms of setup. It quickly gets to the meat and potatoes of the story which is the boarding of the Alabama by pirates and the attempted rescue of Captain Phillips and his crew.
This story seems perfect for the conventional Hollywood big budget treatment. But to my surprise “Captain Phillips” steers clear of those trappings. Billy Ray’s smart and calculated script focuses on what’s important. While Greengrass’ direction ratchets up the intensity and always maintains a sense of urgency, it’s Ray’s writing that keeps us thoroughly invested in Captain Phillips and his plight. There is a time just past the midway point where I felt a sequence was drawing out further than necessary, but as a whole this is real ‘edge of your seat’ stuff.
But make no mistake, Tom Hanks is the real driving force. Hanks was once the king of the Hollywood hill but it could be said that he hasn’t had a great attention-grabbing performance since 2002 and “Road to Perdition”. His work in “Captain Phillips” clearly ends that streak. His performance here is in line with some of the best work of his career. He captures the bravery and heroism of the character while also grounding him by showing the sheer terror he experiences. And his final scene moved me so much and it alone may have cemented this as my favorite performance of the year.
I also have to mention the performance of Barkhad Abdi. This first time Somali-born actor plays Muse, the leader of the Somali hijackers. We first see Muse at his village where he and other fishermen are ordered by soldiers of a local warlord to hijack some passing ships. There is clearly an intent to evoke a thread of sympathy for Muse and his circumstances. Overall it worked dramatically although it was never that convincing. But back to Abdi, it’s clear he’s not a seasoned actor but he’s exactly what his role called for. His demeanor, his expressions, his broken English – it all works to make his character completely convincing. It’s a really good performance.
There are so many things I enjoyed about this film. Watching Captain Phillips and Muse as they try to read and measure each other is fascinating. The two share so many fantastic scenes. The direction from Paul Greengrass is very effective despite his patented hyperactive camera. He keeps your heart racing and leaves you emotionally spent. The military’s arrival adds a whole new dynamic to the story. It’s exhilarating and never devolves into an action movie cliché. And then of course there is the towering performance from Tom Hanks. He’s back to his finest form and this is clearly Oscar worthy work.
In a movie year filled with mediocrity, it’s great to see a film like “Captain Phillips”. Yes Greengrass makes his usual political points that are too on the nose and the slightly sympathetic portrayal of the pirates does feel a bit contrived. But these things aren’t nearly as blatant or distracting as in some of his past efforts. It’s a smart and effective thriller that keeps itself within reasonable bounds. I don’t know how much truth is in the movie, but I do know it really works on a cinematic level. I also know it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.