Tom Hanks established himself as his generation’s answer to Henry Fonda – and Gary Cooper – quite some time ago: an everyman who is forced by circumstances to choose heroism or cowardice and with an air of quiet dignity chooses heroism. In Captain Phillips he’s that heroic everyman again, though there’s more to this torn-from-the-headlines-tale than a protagonist to admire.
That’s because director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) unleashes not only his ever-kinetic cameras in concert with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who has managed fruitful partnerships with Greengrass and Ken Loach as well as an Oscar nomination for his work on The Hurt Locker, but his documentarian’s feel for the subject. Add some realistic acting from the newcomers he’s selected as the antagonists and Captain Phillips manages to offer more than many Hollywood action thrillers (or docudramas for that matter).
The true-life tale is based on a book co-written by a Vermont-based merchant vessel captain named Richard Phillips and author Stephan Talty about the five-day ordeal in April 2009 that ensued when four armed Somalis seized the Maersk Alabama and demanded ransom. But screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) casts a more complex take on the story than the rather straightforward narrative of that book. While perhaps the attempt to add geo-economic depth is telegraphed at times, his script humanizes the weapon-toting, khat-chewing young men who terrorize Phillips and his crew of 20. That makes Captain Phillips more believable and the inevitable conclusion – with four men against the might of the US Navy, including US Navy Seals, it’s not hard to figure out even if you weren’t following the incident four years ago – avoids the cloying taste of triumphalism.
It opens with a rather awkward sequence of not-so-small talk between Phillips (Hanks, of course) and his wife Andrea (an all-too-fleeting appearance by Catherine Keener) as they make their way to the airport for Phillips’ trip to meet with the ship and his crew (including the ever-reliable Chris Mulkey). Soon after arrival we get that foreboding feeling as the captain notes the lack of readiness in preparations – after all, won’t their route take them near Somalia, where civil war among other things has led to the disbanding of that nation’s navy and left the nearby waters infested with warlord-backed pirates? We’re left in no doubt on that score since we see the pirates readying for the open water soon after Phillips and crew get together.
Hanks is as usual in top form, particularly when he has not only to exhibit the mix of emotions just under the surface of his generally calm exterior but also show us the widening cracks in that exterior. It won’t be surprising to see some gongs come his way during the awards season. I hope that Barkhad Abdi, the Somali-born man now residing in Minneapolis who makes his acting debut as leading pirate Muse, isn’t forgotten when nominations are handed out: he makes the defiant but conflicted character the balanced counter-weight to Hank’s reluctant hero.
Henry Jackman (This is The End, Man on a Ledge) provides an appropriately unsettling score that serves this feature’s unnerving narrative well. Like other elements in this movie his music fits the film’s recognizable genre but doesn’t merely trod on too-familiar ground.
Yes, we’ve seen Hanks in this ordinary-guy-turns-hero role before, but Captain Phillips doesn’t leave us with the hackneyed image of a stoic good guy – I won’t spoil the final scenes but Greengrass and his actors make sure we understand the human costs paid by individuals in conflict because of forces beyond their control. That understanding elevates this feature above so many of the docudramas Hollywood has seen fit to throw our way in recent years.
Captain Phillips (www.captainphillipsmovie.com) opens nationally in wide release today (Oct. 11). For locations and show times in the Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use, 134 min. Directed by Paul Greengrass; written by Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. Starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez and David Warshofsky.
*Photos by Hopper Stone, SMPSP and Jasin Boland courtesy Columbia Pictures.