The integrity of the real-world man he is based upon is hotly disputed, but the cinematic character of Captain Phillips in Paul Greengrass’s film of the same name is one of the most nuanced portrayals of heroism we have seen on film this year. As played by Tom Hanks, Phillips is a model of get-the-job-done competence under extreme pressure.
We meet Phillips in the film’s stilted opening scene as he bids farewell to his wife (Catherine Keener doing her best with a limited role) to take charge of a cargo freighter that will sail from Oman to Kenya. But after a weak opening, the film quickly discovers its sea legs as it alternates between Phillips’s preparations for his voyage and a Somali bandit rounding up crew members for a piracy expedition.
In just a few deft scenes in an economically scripted film, the stage is set for a tense showdown between the might of the wealthy world and the deprivation of war-torn Somalia. There’s Phillips, a worldly seafarer who knows that his mission will take him into the treacherous waters alongside Somalia, where pirates prowl for ships to loot and crew to ransom.
Then, there are the pirates, played with terrifying conviction by four Somalian immigrants the filmmakers found in the US. Though volatile, gaunt and phantasmal, these khat-chewing bandits are humanised by a recognition of the conditons that bred them. Far from Conradian caricatures, they’re men pushed into desperate action by their dire circumstances.
From the days when the Romans skirmished with Cilician brigands, pirates from the wilder parts of the map have held empires to ransom. As the weight of American sea power comes down on the group of ragtag Somalian pirates bobbing on a lifeboat in Captain Phillips, it’s incredible to think that such desperate men can still hold a knife to the throat of the world’s most powerful nation.
Greengrass, best known for directing two Jason Bourne films as well as the 9/11 drama United 93, squeezes every drop of suspense out of the asymmetrical game of cat and mouse that plays out between the two sides. In its two-hour running time, there are at least two sequences that rank among the best action scenes I’ve seen this year, both of them made with Greengrass’s documentary-like authenticity.
In one largely CGI-free scene, Greengrass tracks Phillips and his crew as they try to coax as much speed as they can out of a lumbering sea freighter in an attempt to escape a nimble skiff carrying the AK47-bearing pirates. And in another nighttime sequence, we see much of the action through the scopes of Navy Seals tasked with rescuing Phillips from his captors.
But it is the careful characterisation rather than Greengrass’s consummate skill at making throat-constricting action scenes that makes the stakes in Captain Phillips feel so high. The film — based on A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals, and Dangerous Days at Sea by the real Captain Richard Phillips — gives Tom Hanks one of the meatiest roles of an extraordinary career.
His Captain Phillips is a man who believes in the value of quiet professionalism, who is motivated by the need to preserve the wellbeing of his crew. Though able to keep a cool head, he’s no action hero, but rather an ordinary fearful man. When the end comes with devastating catharsis — the last few minutes of the film are probably as fine a display of acting as you’ll see this year — you feel as wrung dry by the ordeal as Phillips, all because of a deeply empathetic performance from Hanks.
Newcomer Barkhad Abdi’s convincing performance as the pirate leader Abduwali Muse — alternating between jocularity and agitation — provides a perfect counterpoint for Hanks. Both men are on the seas to serve those who consider them expendable, but Muse has fewer alternatives than Phillips. Muse is a rank amateur; Hanks and the naval forces that sail to his rescue are pros.
The starkest achievement of Captain Phillips is that it makes you feel like the battle between these ill-matched sides could go either way. This is suspense film-making at its best, a superbly crafted piece of cinema that leans on good script and great acting rather than on pyrotechnics to make the audience care about the events that unfold on screen. — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media