Captain Phillips follows the narrative of the 2009 hijacking of the U.S container ship Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years. The film focuses on the Alabama’s commanding officer, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the relationship with his counterpart Muse the leader of the Somali crew (Barkhad Abdi). The film takes a procedural examination on globalization, economic forces and basic incorrigible human nature.
In short the film is excellent. From beginning to end it’s riddled with tension as we observe two men resort to their basic survival instincts: one through cautionary intellect, the other with defensive violence. Both men are smart, both have high stakes and much to lose, but both have come from extremely different backgrounds at opposite sides of the world.
From a technical standpoint it’s difficult to find fault in this film. The screenplay by Billy Ray pulls no punches, there’s no scene that feels wasted or unnecessary, there’s no added action that feels tacked on for entertainment sake, no bias and no sappy conclusion that negates the horror that many of the characters have just gone though. The directing by Paul Greengrass makes sure that the stakes are always kept high and like his other previous work in United 93 makes sure that no matter if you know the outcome or nott you’ll find yourself sitting at the edge of your seat in anticipation.
But isn’t it all a bit obvious? The event being turned into a movie was hardly a surprise and the telling of the story is almost mechanical-there are definitive breaking in the narration where you feel Act One, Act Two and Act Three beginning and ending. Are there noticeable failings within the movie? No, but I don’t know if it’s a film I’d watch again or if it’s a film to be appreciated rather than enjoyed. The movie succeeds in telling the story but doesn’t go out of its way to impress by doing anything new.
However, what elevates the material are the truly spellbinding performances by our leads. Tom Hanks is known as the nicest man in Hollywood and has also proved an impressive longevity but as of late hasn’t been taking as many risks. After last year’s Cloud Atlas it appears that he’s ready to stretch his acting muscles again and boy does he. As Phillips he’s practical, rigid and authoritative but by no means is he a foolishly brave man and Hanks plays him with such sincerity that you can’t help but feel the natural humanity that the man possesses. There is a scene in particular that deals with shock and despite its brevity could assure an Oscar nomination.
Yet the true revelation is Barkhadi Abdi who plays Muse. His first acting role and he damn near steals the movie from Hank’s grasp (I would say that ultimately he does). The story focuses on Hanks character but the movie is Abdi’s. What could have been a one note villainous role is instead deeply layered, carefully constructed and acted with subtlety age and experience typically demands. A lesser actor would have played it straight from off the script but Abdi manages to evoke a sympathetic audience response, even if we went into the film expecting the opposite. He is one to root for this Awards season-it’s always exciting for new talent to emerge.
It may not be my favorite film of the year-it probably won’t end up in my top ten- and skill may outweigh the heart, but this film undoubtedly will make its mark and it would be a shame to miss.
Captain Phillips arrives in theaters October 11th.