2013 - 134 minutes
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener
I was a little nervous at the beginning of “Captain Phillips” with the intercutting of Tom Hanks as the titular captain preparing for his next voyage with Somali villagers preparing for a hijacking mission. It felt like a precursor to a heavy-handed juxtaposition of the upper middle-class white American laments with that of the desperate and hungry Somalis. These realities are present, but director Paul Greengrass doesn’t push an agenda to make us side with one position over the other. Instead, he rightfully uses character motivations to craft a rich drama. Everything presented has meaning and informs the film.
Greengrass always keeps us in the moment, following the action logically and dials back his shaky-cam technique, but everything still has a handheld, authentic feel. This film is much like his remarkable “United 93” – another gripping true life drama that honestly portrays tension and horror.
In “Captain Phillips” there’s no leaving the hijacked vessel for tearful moments with Phillips’ wife. There’s talk of a White House response, but we don’t see any press conferences or expositional news footage. Everything we need is given to us organically. We’re only away from Phillips and his hijackers briefly to follow Navy Officers and Seals as they prepare for and work their way through neutralizing the situation. While the final act of the film does drag a bit in spots – mostly due to one borderline grating performance – it is fascinating to watch the rescue strategy unfold.
Tom Hanks gives an amazing turn as Phillips, with his “run a tight ship” mentality that may rub some crew members the wrong way but inspires respect. He knows what to do in the face of a hijacking situation but there’s an uneasiness beneath his snapping of orders. Opposite Hanks, newcomer Barkhad Abdi as Muse, leader of the threatening band of Somalis, does an admirable job of being at times terrifying and often unsure of himself. He’s desperate without us seeing him as too sympathetic. We realize he has his problems, but there is never a question he’s doing wrong. The one performance that stands out as not quite over-the-top but nearing the summit is Barkhad Abdirahman as Bilal, who takes his role of enforcer to almost cartoonish levels. His constant yelling and clenched jaw almost take us into contrivance territory, but Greengrass pulls back when he has to.
This is ultimately a fascinating character study looking at what happens when things fall apart. While the hardened Naval Commanders are coldly doing their duty, Phillips and his captors unravel. There is debate on the accuracy of the film as it relates to real-life events, but the sentiment feels true without being romanticized or soppy. There are no war room cheering scenes or tearful reunions on the deck of a ship here after the endgame; only a brutal and gutting Hanks performance of a man in shock that underscores the gravity of this overwhelming experience.
© 2013 by Blake Crane