‘Captain Phillips’: Tom Hanks outdoes himself as a bold man of the sea
In spring and summer, it seemed as if we were getting an end-of-the-world sci-fi thriller every other week.
In fall, the new theme is individual survival, with Oscar winners trying to survive in hyperrealistic situations. A week after the Sandra Bullock-George Clooney white-knuckler film “Gravity,” here’s Tom Hanks as a hostage in “Captain Phillips.” Coming soon, Robert Redford trying not to be swallowed by the sea in “All Is Lost.”
So far we’re two for two with these films. “Captain Phillips” is one of the best movies of the year, and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Hanks doesn’t earn a best actor nod for his best work since “Castaway.”
It’s 2009. Capt. Richard Phillips is in command of a cargo ship far off the coast of Somalia. Like everyone else aboard, he knows there’s a small chance they’ll be attacked by the pirates that infest these waters.
When that small chance becomes a looming reality, he can see his captors coming when they’re a mere speck on the radar, but there’s only so much he can do about it from his post behind the wheel of the massive freighter.
The only “weapons” on the freighter are high-pressure water jets and a flare gun. Military help is hours if not days away. If the armed and almost suicidally determined pirates manage to board his ship, it will be only a matter of time before they take control.
Few living directors can grab us by the wrists and pin us in our seats with more urgency than Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “United 93”), who once again delivers an intense, emotionally exhausting thriller with amazing verite camerawork and gut-wrenching realism.
And smack in the middle of this docudrama based on true events is the great big movie star Tom Hanks in a career-crowning performance. With a simple phrase or a quick change of expression in his eyes, Hanks takes us to a place where we know exactly what he’s thinking.
In the matter-of-fact opening sequences, Phillips and his loving wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), go through the familiar ritual of early morning coffee and packing the car and discussing what the future holds for their nearly grown children before she drops him off with a warm hug.
Greengrass’ camera follows Capt. Phillips as he boards the U.S.-flagged MV Maersk Alabama at the port of Oman, greets the crew and goes over the checklist for their journey. The captain is a veteran who commands respect not because he verbally demands it, but because of the firm, low-key, confident manner with which he handles all tasks, addresses all concerns, makes all key decisions.
Simultaneously, we see the chaos in the Somalian fishing villages where men and teenage boys clamor for the chance to join a two-boat mercenary mission to take to the dangerous seas and forcibly overtake civilian ships for ransom cash. Not for a second do we feel empathy for these desperate criminals, but we see evidence of the horrific poverty in which they live and we understand their motivation. These men couldn’t give a care about their potential victims. They want money. They want to survive. If some first-world stranger from another universe gets harmed in the process, so be it.
As one of the skiffs relentlessly pursues the Alabama (the other having turned back rather than face further life-risking maneuvers), cinematographer Barry Ackroyd brilliantly captures the magnificently choreographed action as four armed gunmen manage to board the ship.
Barkhad Abdi, a Somali new to acting, is up to the task of sharing scene after scene with Hanks. Abdi’s Muse is the unquestioned leader of the pirates, verbally sparring with Phillips as the captain acquiesces to demands while trying to keep his crew hidden and figure out a way to contact help.
After a number of tense confrontations aboard the ship, the pirates and Phillips exit the ship in a 28-foot capsule with poor ventilation and limited supplies. It feels like a death trap.
With one pirate in danger of bleeding out from an injury sustained aboard the Alabama and another convinced they should just kill Phillips, the relatively thoughtful and pragmatic Muse is the captain’s only hope. We never get into “you and me, we’re more alike than you know” territory, but there are some moments when Phillips finds slivers of common ground with his captor.
What fine work from Hanks whether he’s engaging in comfortable conversation with his wife of decades, quelling mild uprisings from some of his own crew or desperately negotiating for his life. It’s not an action-hero role although Phillips does take physical action more than once. Here is a smart, experienced, worldly everyman who finds himself in a situation more terrifying than anyone but a soldier could ever imagine. Even as Greengrass’ signature kinetic style renders us nearly seasick and emotionally spent from the action, it’s the work of Hanks that makes this film unforgettable.