Saturday, October 12, 2013

Captain Phillips

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, directed by Paul Greengrass (134 min.)

In April of 2009, the US-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama was taken over and the ship's crew held at gunpoint by four Somali pirates off the coast of Africa.  Captain Phillips, the new high seas action thriller from Paul Greengrass, tells the story of the Maersk Alabama and of its Captain, Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage on a lifeboat for days by the pirates.  The film, mostly accurate in its retelling of the harrowing events, is one of the better films of 2013, anchored by some of the best work from Tom Hanks in a decade.  But let's not overlook the other important players in this cast, some with small roles, others with roles that stand toe to toe with Hanks.

Captain Rich Phillips (Hanks) is a New England family man who, as we see him in the opening scene with his wife (Katherine Keener), is on the verge of an empty nest at home.  But that doesn't stop him from relaying sound life advice to his children through his wife.  Phillips seems like a loving man, but one who respects hard work more than most.  As the Captain of the Maersk Alabama, Phillips doesn't take the time to relate to his crew of twenty men.  He only wants the job done and done right, and seems to the crew to be preoccupied with safety measures.  Perhaps it is the memo he received warning him that his cargo ship would be traveling through high-traffic areas for Somali pirates.  Right about the time Phillips and his crew are running through a safety drill focusing on pirate defense, two bogeys appear on the radar.  After one failed attempt, the pirates finally get it together and one boat manages to fight through the fire hoses and attach its ladder and board the ship.

The pirates are led by Muse, a gangly, disheveled Somalian played by newcomer Barkhad Adbi.  I
don't know what sort of acting career Adbi might have in his future, but here, as Muse, he works in absolute harmony with Hanks.  One of the things I appreciate about the picture is the time it takes to develop the villains with a backstory that adds a level of sympathy regarding these pirates, with these young men and teenagers who don't have many more options in their village or their country.  A film like this one can only benefit from making the antagonist a three-dimensional character.  Through his actions, and in his words to Phillips, you can begin to understand Muse and his desperate comrades.

The taking of the Maersk Alabama is only the first half of Captain Phillips.  Eventually, the crew of the Alabama get the upper hand on the pirates and force them off the ship via the escape lifeboat, an orange pod.  But the pirates flip the tables back in their favor when they capture Phillips in the boat and take off towards the Somali coast.  The remainder of the film develops into a standoff between the lifeboat and the Navy who corner the pirates in an attempt to save Phillips.  As the ship pushes along towards land, the heat and the lack of food and water drive tensions through the roof.  The pirates begins quarreling.  Phillips tries to escape but is recaptured, and the film circles to a conclusion that made me forget to take a breath sometimes.  All of this tense action is heightened of course by Hanks, but also by the performance from Adbi, who never shows his full hand but lets us into his character enough to feel for his plight and the actions on board the lifeboat.

For a majority of the film, Hanks personification of Phillips is very much in the moment.  He is being acted upon, and he must think fast and Hanks is forced into some intensely physical acting.  It is at the end where Hanks absolutely puts his stamp on the picture.  There is a moment of catharsis from Phillips that is as emotionally devastating as anything I have seen from Hanks since Wilson floated away in the open water thirteen years ago.  And as I mentioned, Barkhad Adbi goes fifteen rounds with Hanks and is deserving of a supporting nomination himself.  All of the peripheral characters capture the perfect musical notes of their performances to create a fantastic symphony of thrills.  

NOTE: The true story of Rich Phillips' ordeal can be found of course, and most accounts match up with the story told on screen more accurately than most of these type of films .  That is if that's important to you.  I always take these true stories as embellishments for cinematic purposes, though it is interesting and a little more impactful when one gets this many things accurate.