It takes a special kind of director and movie to make a true life story that everyone knows how it ends a two-hour tension filled experience. I remember not breathing for moments in Argo and even though I knew Hitler didn’t die I was rooting for the team in Valkyrie and now I can add the feeling of claustrophobia during the last half of Captain Phillips to that list.
Captain Phillips tells the true-life story of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship that was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. After taking control of the ship, four pirates kidnap the captain of the ship in the lifeboat and try to ransom him off while the navy works on getting back the hostage safely.
This story is already crafted to be a nail-biting experience with armed pirates, no rescue in sight and a small contained space that looks more and more like a person’s tomb the longer the standoff goes. Yet, with Paul Greengrass (United 93, Bourne Supremacy) at the helm the movie is blasted off into another level of tension. Much like Gravity, the movie shoots out with little time for world building. We have a moment or two of the Phillips (Tom Hanks) with his wife before we meet the pirates and then the crew of the Alabama. Not long after the boat is out in the water Phillips sees two blips on his radar coming up fast.
While the procedure in the case of piracy is to shoot high-powered water hoses and lock cages, it is not surprising that these deterrents don’t keep the four heavily armed and resilient pirates away. Unlike most places where help is a few minutes away, the ocean is vast and the closest assistance is hundreds of miles away. By this time Phillips knows that he is going to be boarded and help is a long ways away.
Hanks does a great job with his character at this point in not turning him into hero that knows exactly what to do and how to get out of the situation. When the pirates come to him he is terrified, out of his element and skating by on adrenaline and you see this all in Hank’s face. The next part of the film is a well staged cat and mouse game where the pirates, let by Muse (played expertly by newcomer Barkhad Abdi) try to find the crew and Phillips, not wanting more hostages, keeps them away. These scenes are done very well and kept me in the movie, the tension didn’t really get ratcheted until Phillips is taken into the lifeboat alone with the four pirates.
The lifeboat is a tiny vessel with poor ventilation, only a jug of water and would feel cramped in the best situations. When you are stuck in the boat with four men aiming guns at you and sailing towards an unwinnable situation, the boats walls seem to close in even more. It was at this point that I felt the walls closing in on me too. I am not a fan of the shaky cam action scene and it was growing old in the first half of the film but Greengrass is so good at this technique and uses it wisely in these scenes in the lifeboat that it made me feel the waves and the tight space. Pretty soon the Navy catches up with the boat and Muse and his crew realize that they are in an unwinnable situation. While the Navy tries to work out a peaceful end to the stand-off, they also have Seals ready to go and as time goes on the chances of it ending without bloodshed becomes almost nil.
I have said a lot about the wonderful job that Greengrass did with this film but the other half of the equation that makes this one of the best films of the year is the phenomenal acting job Hanks does. On top of never playing the hero card he shows the captain wasn’t the cuddliest bosses and staying away from the "awe shucks" vibe that Hanks does so well brought the actor out of his comfort zone. By the time he ends up in the small vessel you see so many thoughts go through his head just by the reactions on his face. Phillips is terrified, defiant, cornered and many other emotions all at once and Hanks plays this great. We don’t need him to say a word to see how scared and worried he is.
Hanks is in almost every scene of the film but has less dialogue than in 99% of his movies. He tries to talk to the pirates but it never works and he is smart enough to shut up and not egg on his captors. For 2/3rds of the movie Hanks role is very restrained until everything starts unraveling and Hanks goes big (but never showy). Then near the end he has the scene that almost guarantees another Oscar nod this year. Not often do you see the emotional consequences and aftermath of a situation like this but Captain Phillips trains its unblinking eye on Phillips after he is rescued and Hanks NAILS the scene. This moment tore me up and was so raw it was almost unrelenting. Hanks has always been an interesting actor but with this role he turns in his best performance since Cast Away and one of his top ones in a career littered with Oscars and nominations.
The pairing of Greengrass and Hanks was not one I would have ever thought of but it was a match that worked out perfectly. Captain Phillips isn’t a rah-rah type action film and isn’t as preachy as the director’s last film the DOA Green Zone but a movie that shows what a typical man can do in a horrendous situation. Captain Phillips is a must see for fans of Greengrass, Hanks, thrillers or adults who are just looking for a good movie.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Screenplay written by Billy Ray.
Starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi.