Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey
Running Time: 134 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Imagine my surprise when I'm almost halfway through Captain Phillips and the realization dawns on me that I'm not even close to the final thirty minutes everyone's talking about and the suspense has already reached unbearable, pulse-pounding levels. And this is knowing what's going to happen. Or so we think. We actually know very little aside from the fact that in 2009 Captain Richard Phillips and his crew were hijacked in the Indian Ocean by Somalian pirates, he was taken hostage, and lived to write about it. That book is the basis for this film, vividly brought to life by Paul Greengrass (United 93). How much of what ends up on screen resembles the actual incident will tiredly be the subject for much debate, but that has little to do with the finished product, which is nearly a masterpiece.
We've been through this before with Zero Dark Thirty, when intelligent discussion devolved into political mudslinging as its detractors attempted to make the filmmakers and audiences somehow feel guilty about the U.S. capturing and killing Osama bin Laden. I'm all for empathy and understanding, but is anyone else more than a little disturbed that this film's worth is being judged on how compassionately the Somalian pirates are portrayed? The same Somalian pirates who hijacked an American cargo ship and took its captain hostage at gunpoint. Greengrass going the extra mile to try to depict them as something more than one-dimensional monsters is probably giving them better treatment than they deserve based on their actions. If anything, those involved in the making of this picture should be commended for managing to invest the story with this much humanity without sacrificing any of the true event's intensity. But the big question is: How on Earth was Tom Hanks not nominated for this?
From the opening scene, Hanks plays Boston native Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama container ship, as a born leader. That leadership will be severely tested when four armed pirates led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) take control of the ship off the coast of Somalia and he has to take whatever measures necessary to protect his crew and make them feel like they're in control, while still somehow maintaining a certain degree of control himself. What plays out is not only a severe culture clash, with the pirates' motivations remaining vague, even sometimes to them. To say their plan wasn't well thought out doesn't even begin to cover it, but despite the sloppy execution (or rather because of it) the ordeal seems that much more dangerous for the Americans. These Somalians may not know what they're doing, how to do it, and fail to grasp the magnitude of what they're attempting to pull off, but at least they have unpredictability and intimidation on their side. Also in their favor is that Phillips' crew is unarmed and must rely only on ship hoses as weaponry, deeming their numbers advantage useless.
Even, for a brief time, when it seems the defending crew is in control, they're really not. That's when a crucial decision from Phillips turns this into a gripping single location thriller with his life on the line, as well as the pride of pirates who demand to be taken seriously and refuse to be made fools of by America. Since Phillips is played by Hanks, a national treasure and maybe the single most likable performer we have, it isn't difficult to be on pins and needles worrying about the character's safety regardless of our knowledge of events. But Hanks (adopting a New England accent), never plays on that connection, instead offering up a harrowing depiction of a very scared man trying to do his best under dire circumstances and struggling to keep it together. At many points he has to use social engineering to guide the actions of his captors without them knowing, all while the U.S. Navy is poised and ready to intervene. As the situation escalates and Phillips' life is put in greater danger by the minute, their presence becomes more prominent. The Navy has a plan. Even backup plans. The pirates are only running on instinct.
In what's ultimately a battle of wills between the two captains who couldn't be more different in both values and background, both must still find a way to communicate so they can get out of this what they want. For Phillips, it's survival. For Muse, it's money and respect. Out of necessity, the relationship that develops between the two is an adversarial one, but also fraught with tension as each tries to manipulate the other to gain the upper hand. Phillips is successful simply because he's so much smarter, which is through no fault of Muse's own. And that's really where the culture clash in Billy Ray's Oscar nominated screenplay comes into play, as Muse and his crew are too prideful to truly grasp how much of a disadvantage they're at as the situation escalates past the point of no return.
Barkhad Abdi has never acted a day in his life before this film, but you see why he'd be cast on sheer presence alone. While he may not look like a physical threat, there's an aura of danger surrounding him and Abdi conveys it without losing sight of the real person underneath, in his own way struggling for survival just as Phillips is. He's so believable and scary opposite his scenes with Hanks that it's almost easy to overlook his fellow pirates, played by Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali, who contribute just as much at times. Especially Abdirahman, who plays the hotheaded Bilal as an uncontrollable monster prone to terrifying fits of rage. He's the one that can't be manipulated, operating purely on bitterness and hatred. But even he has moments where we glimpse beneath the surface to sense the real deep seeded source of that frustration. Ironically, we know the least about Phillips, aside from a brief scene at the beginning with he and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) that neither adds or detracts from the proceedings. Everything we learn about this man's character is uncovered through the life and death situation he finds himself in. As for all the shaky cam, it didn't bother me one bit, as I was too engulfed in the events unfolding in front of me to even consider the technique used to deliver it. It's like you're right there.
Yes, the United States military and Captain Phillips are depicted as heroes in this situation because that's exactly what they were. It's one of the few things we know as fact, and also happens to work as a compelling dramatization on film. If the roles were reversed, and Americans were the initial aggressors, the same would hold true. One of the movie's greatest strengths is that it does make you consider that scenario and put the instigators actions into context. But Greengrass has no obligation to portray them "sympathetically," regardless of their history or background, of which only a documentary should be expected to thoroughly explore. All bets were off when they boarded that ship armed and ready to commit violence.
What it also shares with Zero Dark Thirty (besides providing a dramatic recreation of incredibly recent history) is a final scene that just ripped me apart. It's the very definition of "sticking the landing," going a step further to explore the aftermath with an indescribable few minutes that features the best acting of Tom Hanks' career and highlights the potential benefits of casting a trained military professional if the role warrants it. But it's really everything leading up to that scene that makes it pack the well-earned, emotional punch it does. "Based on a true story" is often a dreaded tagline but Captain Phillips isn't merely a visual retelling of an important, almost unbelievable event. It's an experience that challenges the viewer debate and consider the thoughts, feelings and motivations of everyone involved in it.