Movie Review | Tom Hanks delivers tour-de-force performance in ‘Captain Phillips’
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 21, 2013 02:10
Tom Hanks is easily one of America’s most beloved actors, but the past several years of his career — with the exception of “Toy Story 3” (2010) and “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) — have been marked by a series of middling films and mediocre roles. It’s hard to believe that Hanks last won an Oscar nearly 20 years ago for “Forrest Gump” (1994) and has seen a mind-boggling 12 years pass since his last Academy Award nomination. With “Captain Phillips,” however, Hanks is back in fine form — and with any luck, he’ll get some Oscar recognition for his masterful work.
The Paul Greengrass-directed thriller is based on a gripping true story, one that played out on televisions across the country four years ago. Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips — a soft-spoken New Englander and family man — whose ship, the Maersk Alabama, was attacked and boarded by Somali pirates in April 2009. Eventually taken hostage on a lifeboat for several days, Phillips waited as the U.S. Navy worked to secure his release. It’s no spoiler to say Phillips survives the ordeal; he eventually wrote a book about his experience. Although audiences may go into the theater knowing how the story ends, Greengrass still manages to craft an impressively riveting and affecting film.
The director, who has achieved previous critical and commercial success with 9/11 drama “United 93” (2006), “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), is perhaps best known for his use of handheld cameras to employ the shaky cam effect. With extensive and liberal use of the style, Greengrass makes sure “Captain Phillips” is no exception to this rule.
Although the technique works for much of the film, the first few minutes are hard to sit through. The movie opens quietly with a shot of the Phillips family home, as the captain prepares to leave for the ill-fated trip. While he drives to the airport with his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), Greengrass shows the couple from behind, placing the camera awkwardly close to their faces. It’s fairly nauseating and also frustrating — this scene is essentially the only context Phillips’ character gets in the whole film, and it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the moment with the camera bouncing around.
This sequence is also, unfortunately, the only scene that the immensely talented Keener appears. Greengrass truly underutilizes her — which is a shame not only because she is the only significant female character in the film, but also because her relationship with Phillips is important to understanding his character. The shaky cam effect is so distracting here that Greengrass fails to sufficiently flesh out their dynamic.
This being said, “Captain Phillips” is a truly remarkable work. Hanks owns the role of Phillips, imbuing his character with an endearing gruffness. The captain is a thoughtful and effective leader, both willing to sacrifice himself for his men and unwilling to capitulate to his captors. Hanks poignantly captures the hope and determination human beings can possess even in the most dire of circumstances. Yet the scene that many point to as Hanks’ most powerful moment occurs in the film’s closing minutes when a rescued Phillips breaks down during a medical exam. Raw and affecting, this emotional collapse reminds us why Tom Hanks is a five-time Oscar nominee.
While “Captain Phillips” is certainly Hanks’ film, it also very much belongs to his co-stars — African actors, some of whom are Somali themselves, selected from an open casting call that 700 hopefuls attended. Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the pirates, delivers a striking and much-talked-about performance as a despairing young man trying to prove himself the only way he can in a harsh and unforgiving world. His face, gaunt and expressive, continually captivates us as he depicts the increasing desperation and terror of the doomed pirate. Abdi gives Muse a remarkable humanity, eliciting simultaneous sympathy and horror from the audience — and his singular performance only builds on itself as the film progresses.
The second half of the movie is set in the tiny, enclosed lifeboat in which the pirates have taken Phillips hostage. As the U.S. Navy bears down on them, a physiological war of sorts plays out between Phillips and his captors, especially Muse. The physical and emotional struggle between the captain and the pirates becomes emblematic of something much larger — Greengrass has developed a fascinating depiction of a most unsettling culture clash. Although this second act drags on a bit, Greengrass takes the tension between the first-world and the third-world and examines it with such riveting intimacy that it becomes nearly impossible to look away.