Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tom Hanks Shines in Searing "Captain Phillips"

Once the accent settles in, Tom Hanks kills it in Captain Phillips.

Captain Phillips is a gripping, well-crafted film about a real-life Somali pirate hijacking that turned into an ill-conceived hostage situation. As he did with United 93, director Paul Greengrass presents the story almost like a documentary, and despite the facts being public knowledge, he infuses the whole thing with an almost unbearable amount of tension.

The film opens with two scenes designed to set up the viewpoints and concerns of our two leads –Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), the captain of a transport vessel to Kenya, and Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the fearless and desperate leader of a four-band pirate crew that will eventually hijack Phillips’ ship. The latter scene does a nice job of subtly showing why Somalis would turn to piracy, but the former is a tin-eared exercise – the one blight on what is a very tight and attuned script from screenwriter Billy Ray.

The film mostly sticks to the actual story, which lends the whole thing a no-bullshit credibility but results in a lack of the sizzle and depth that might have been included in a more fictionalized account. We learn very little about any of our characters, and while they all feel like real people, we’re mostly denied of the movie moments that would really sell their dimensionality. However, the measured, fly-on-the-wall approach creates a participatory feel, so it's really a strength and a weakness all at once.

At 134 minutes, the film is pretty long, and it does start to drag once the pirates take Phillips in their desperate attempt to salvage their botched takeover of the Maersk Alabama. That said, I think the extended sequence inside the claustrophobic lifeboat is important to get viewers into the cornered mindset of the helpless inhabitants, as Phillips becomes more and more convinced he will not make it out alive, and the pirates become increasingly terrified and delusional about how the situation will play out.

The extended time is also essential in building the sense of dread, and it really sets up the denouement of the film in which Hanks gets to drop the fa├žade of resolute cool headedness and let all the bottled up pressure and fear come flowing out. It’s a strong film overall with great technical work across the board and ace support from newcomer Abdi, but I suspect Captain Phillips will be remembered most for these final emotional moments with Hanks. The man’s an all-time great, but his breathtaking vulnerability in the infirmary scene (a breakdown on which can be read here) may be the strongest moment in his illustrious career. B+