By Benjamin Lane
Captain Phillips. (2013). Run time: 134 mins. MPAA: PG-13 (for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance abuse). Starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Written by Billy Ray. Directed by Paul Greengrass.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t understand why the marketing campaign for Captain Phillips decided to use the line “from the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.” Wait. I lied. It’s to pull in more money. Of course it will bring in more cash from the public if you advertise those two films in place of Bloody Sunday and United 93. It would have made more sense to do the opposite, though, given the subject matter. If, however, it was to pull in more money, then the marketing campaign is the only set of people involved with Captain Phillips interested in more money. Greengrass and lead actor Tom Hanks bring the story of Richard Phillips’ dangerous days at sea to vivid and scarily realistic life that features scene after scene of unavoidable caution and care for the subject matter. The result is a film that drips with an intensity so effectual you won’t know what hit you.
We all remember the news story in 2009. The Maersk Alabama, headed by Captain Richard Phillips, found itself hijacked by armed Somali pirates. After being held captive in a lifeboat for five days, the Navy SEALS swooped in, saved the day, and that was it. Oh, but never assume that’s it. Paul Greengrass takes a script from Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) and takes a stab at bringing the real life tragedy to the big screen, as he’s done twice before. Bloody Sunday proved to be an incredible depiction of the 1972 massacre of Irish protesters by British soldiers. I still to day this day believe it is one of the best docudramas of all time, due to both the acting and directing. It just felt like a camera was following the actual event, and no one was acting. Then came United 93 in 2006. Some said it was too early to make a 9/11 drama, and some were correct, because their mindset led them to believe it would be a Hollywood-ized retelling to make cash. Not so. Greengrass’ signature shaky cam and his own script was enough to send chills down audiences’ spine and bring tears to our eyes. Flowing tears. We may never again get a film about that event that will be so accurately depicted while being so tragically moving. Now, we get Captain Phillips, which is perfect material for Greengrass to handle, and he delievers full force once again. I love Paul Greengrass. He is one of my favorite filmmakers, and the reason is because he knows how to shoot a movie. He uses close up shaky cam, and he’s really the only director that still makes it look like an art form. And he always picks perfect scripts for this tactic: ones that are intense. And he’s done it again with Captain Phillips. He brings real tension. That is, of course, due to the real life event and the actors as well, which I will discuss in a moment, but Greengrass does a lot of bringing the intensity to the screen by his camera movements, zoom tactics and camera angles. I actually cried three times in this movie, the second and third times I will discuss when I talk about Tom Hanks, but the first time is when the pirates board the ship. You are getting used to these characters keeping the pirates away for what seems like a long time, and even though you know they are getting on the ship, when they finally do, it is unexpectedly powerful. The first confrontation between Phillips and the lead pirate lasts for maybe ten or fifteen minutes it seemed, and I swear I had tears in my eyes the whole time. It was such a powerfully acted and well framed scene that just captured the mood on the ship perfectly. When the pirates take Phillips hostage in the lifeboat, Greengrass’ talent is put on full display and the second half of this movie is a perfect example of a signature Paul Greengrass movie. It brought out my claustrophobia and it left me sweating, gripping the edge of my seat, wondering if he would get away, even though I knew the outcome. That is about the highest praise I can give a director. If Greengrass is not nominated for an Oscar, it will be an upset.
Going into Captain Phillips, I heard from a lot of people that this is one of the best performance Tom Hanks has ever given. That, my friends, is a strong statement. I mean, come on. Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Toy Story, The Terminal, Big, Catch Me If You Can, The Green Mile. Needless to say, the guy is one of the best actors in the business. He’s one of my all time favorite actors for sure. And believe it or not, this really is one of Tom Hanks’ best performances. It’s the best I’ve seen him since Cast Away thirteen years ago. It’s funny, too, because I was watching this movie and I was thinking to myself, “Okay, Tom Hanks is actually doing a really good job in this role, but I’m not sensing career best.” Then the second half kicked in and things intensified and Hanks got progressively better. Then, he was rescued, and I was thinking, “Alright, that was a really good performance in a great movie.” Then, the surprise happens when things get even better. The final scene in Captain Phillips is the most powerfully moving scene I have seen in any film this year. When Hanks’ character is being walked to the medical examiner, I teared up. He was delusional, lost, and confused. Then, the final scene, and this is the third time I cried. Hanks is being examined, completely in shock, and breaks down. If this movie sucked entirely, I am telling you this scene alone would have made it worth it. For the first time in a long time, and I mean a long time, an actor actually brought flowing tears to my eyes. I actually had to take my beanie off and cover my mouth so as not to break down with him. It didn’t help. I broke down. He is broken, honest and raw, and it is the most real scene I have ever seen from Hanks. I am tearing up just writing about it. Thankfully, when the credits began to roll, all I could hear was sniffling. Everyone in the theater was crying audibly, even guys, and it made me cry even harder. Not only was this such a sensitive subject that would have brought tears anyway, but the ferocity with which Hanks brings this broken man to the screen is a performance that will be talked about for years. If the Academy doesn’t recognize him, it will be a massive upset.
Of course, though, Hanks isn’t alone. Barkhad Abdi plays Muse, the leader of the Somali hijackers, and he gives a savagely unsettling performance. Why? Good talent? Absolutely. But what makes his performance all the more wonderful is the fact that he was pulled from a group of Somalis who have no acting credits. He has no prior acting experience. None at all. He nor his colleagues who take this ship. And that is just another aspect of Captain Phillips that will leave you breathless. Abdi, in my opinion, gives such a menacing performance I would love to see him pick a nomination at the Oscars as well, if they don’t snub him for being new. They shouldn’t. Quvenzhane Wallis was nominated for her first film. Same with Hailee Steinfeld. I hope he gets some recognition. Throughout this movie, I really felt like I was watching a group of savage pirates that would be willing to do anything. It’s a group of terrific performances. Involving the pirates, I want to point out something that really took me by surprise. Before everything sets up, you see Phillips on his way to the airport talking to his wife about everyday things. Kids, college, difficulties finding a job nowadays, etc. All of that could be expected. But what surprised me was they did the same thing for the pirates. You see them on the coast of Somalia before they set out to find a ship talking with each other when their harsh bosses arrive, warlords, telling them to get to work, forcefully. Paul Greengrass and company do not cast a positive light over the pirates and justify their actions, but they do show that everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do. When asked why he does what he does, Muse calmly says, “I’ve got bosses,” to which Phillips replies, “We all have bosses.” It’s an interesting line nonetheless that will get you thinking, which is just another layer of excellence this film is good at.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Paul Greengrass’ third entry into what may go down as an unofficial trilogy of real life tragedy docudramas proves to be one of his career best films. With this, Bloody Sunday and United 93 under his belt, he proves that he is without a doubt a master at bringing real life stories to life with vivid detail and ferocious intensity. At 134 minutes long, this film is never boring. From beginning to end, I was progressively moving closer to the edge of my seat. It’s one of those kinds of movies. Tom Hanks hits a new peak in his acting career as the heroic Captain Phillips, a performance that is sure to go down as one of the absolute best, maybe even the best, in the Tom Hanks canon. The man brought flowing tears to my eyes. This is an extraordinary film, and it is only the second film this year to which I reward my highest rating. You owe it to yourself to see Captain Phillips. It’s one of the year’s best.