2 hour, 14 minutes
Tom Hanks will go down in history as one of the greatest actors of all time. I know, I know, I’m going out on a limb here. I mean, it’s not like the guy’s particularly popular or anything. But what makes Hanks such a great actor is not simply that people like him and his movies so much, it’s that he is able to commit to a role and elevate it far beyond what was maybe even necessary. Case in point, this week’s high seas thriller “Captain Phillips” could easily have been a History Channel movie of the week, with one of the lesser known Baldwin brothers as the captain. Yes, the tale of a container ship hijacked and its captain taken hostage makes for a thrilling story, and yes it made international headlines, but that was three years ago and news about Somali piracy has pretty much dropped off the radar since then. The entire ordeal affected, at most, a dozen people and lasted only a couple of days - not really a story that requires one of the biggest stars in the world to tell it. And yet, thanks to a marvelous performance by Hanks, as well as commanding direction and a stellar supporting cast, “Captain Phillips” is easily one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.
The film opens on a slightly rocky note. Director Paul Greengrass is smart to give us a few moments of Captain Phillips in his home to ground the film and to give it perspective, but the dialogue shared by Catherine Keener, in a cameo as Phillips’ wife, and Hanks is awkward and really only exists to get her to the line “It’s going to be all right, isn’t it?” An ominous question if there ever was one. Once Phillips, who has been tasked with hauling food aid and fresh water down the coast of Africa in his massive container ship, the Maersk Alabama, arrives in port, he immediately begins inspecting the boat, and Greengrass begins amping up the tension, bit by bit.
The scenes of the Alabama getting underway are intercut with scenes in a ragged beachside village in Somalia where teams of pirates, day laborers essentially, are roused into action by the impatient and violent dictates of a local warlord. For these gaunt men, piracy is a job - a way to feed their families and avoid being shot for disobedience. For those who like their history served up with a healthy dose of righteous anger, it may feel as though director Greengrass is softpedaling the evil pirates, but this perspective is one of the elements that makes this film better than the average shoot-em-up. Set in teams of skiffs attached to a medium sized “mother ship,” the pirates would make their way out into waters off the Somali coast, looting and ransoming any unprotected ships they could get their hands on. In the lead skiff is Muse, a truly frightening-looking man whose worry and ambition collide to create storm clouds over his skeletal brow. When the Alabama sails over the horizon, it appears to the pirates that they have hit the jackpot.
On board, Captain Phillips runs his men through drills until suddenly the drill becomes reality. Employing countermeasures, the crew attempts to fend of the pirates, but without weapons, the conclusion is foregone. Ordering the crew into hiding, Phillips is still in the wheelhouse when the four Somali hijackers crash into the room brandishing AK-47s, carrying chaos with them. What follows is a tense standoff that goes from the maze-like corridors of the Maersk Alabama to the cramped confines of a covered lifeboat to the bridge of a U.S. Naval battleship. Through it all, Phillips attempts to remain calm, but as the pressure mounts, the cracks begin to appear and Hanks, who has a slew of remarkable performances already, gives one of the best of his career.
I credit Tom Hanks greatly with the success of the film, but there were two other key elements that could have derailed the entire production. One, Paul Greengrass, who directed two of the “Bourne” films as well as the gut-wrenching “United 93,” does an amazing job helming a difficult shoot. His handheld style of shooting isn’t for everyone, but adds a level of veritas that is difficult to achieve any other way. The other element is the incredible performance of Barkhad Abdi, a first-time actor who plays the part of Muse. With his three cohorts, all Somali-born immigrants living in America, Abdi drives much of the action of the film. Where Hanks is mostly asked to react, Abdi controls much of the tempo and the mood by his slow, methodical performance. Where the other Somalis do a lot of yelling and screaming, Muse is calm, saying over and over again to his captive, “Everything gonna be all right.” It’s a little chilling, and it wasn’t until later that I made the connection that he’s talking as much to himself as to Phillips.
“Captain Phillips” is a powerful movie. Much of it’s weight comes from the fact that Greengrass chooses to give equal importance and screentime to the villains as to the heroes. There is no doubt that Hanks will get a nomination for Best Actor, and I predict that Barkhad Abdi will get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but without Phillips’ name above the title, it’s a toss-up as to who is in the movie more. I appreciated this perspective and I appreciate that Paul Greengrass is a confident enough director to trust the audience without manipulating them with either jingoism or mawkish sentiment. That simplicity enables the tension and terror to mount successfully because you are allowed to identify with each of the characters on both sides of the conflict. Greengrass keeps the pressure on for the entire film, finally culminating in one of the most honestly emotional scenes I’ve seen on film in a long time. Despite its movie-of-the-week trappings, “Captain Phillips,” bouyed by great direction and great performances, rides high.
“Captain Phillips” is rated PG-13 for language, frightening tension, violence, and several disturbing scenes of blood.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.