Release: Friday, October 11, 2013
“Oh, Captain my Captain. . .!”
Expecting Tom Hanks’ name to circulate around when it comes time to talking Best Actor is about as safe a bet as expecting more movies to be made for the rest of forever. Can’t say for sure, buuuut I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen.
And so, he’ll all but confirm that outrageous theory of mine as he takes on the titular role in Paul Greengrass’ new biopic Captain Phillips, a particularly tense rendering of the experiences of the real-life cargo captain and his written accounts.
His book, A Captain’s Duty, details the drama that unfolded off the coast of Somalia in 2009, when a freight ship carrying food and other relief supplies was hijacked by four Somalian fishermen. The siege was violent and intense, and culminated in the skipper being held hostage for several days as the hijackers escaped the ship in a rescue vessel, bound for the African shores. This was the first successful act of piracy since the early 19th century. I haven’t read the book myself but considering the nature of the events and the authenticity and emotion that first-hand account narratives tend to offer up, I’m sure it’s a compelling read, and one I cannot wait to get my hands on. Especially now.
I can’t vouch for its faithfulness to the source material, but Greengrass’ film is simply magnificent, and a more-than-competent stand-alone piece of work. He marries the formula of a biopic to an unusually intelligent script (written by Billy Ray) that grounds all characters in a reality often lacking in films similar to it. (Sorry Sam Jackson, The Negotiator may have more “motherf**ker”s in it, but this film is just so much more engaging.) The director’s latest also benefits from a performance from Hanks that may be his most inspiring yet. Those who appreciated his level-headedness as astronaut Jim Lovell haven’t seen anything yet. And his Chuck Noland in Cast Away now just seems to be practice. The New England-born Rich Phillips is truly a remarkable human being, and Hanks does the man justice, as only an actor of his caliber can.
The film begins with a suspiciously insouciant opening scene in which Rich and his wife, Andrea (a very limited Catherine Keener) are headed to the airport for his upcoming assignment off the coast of Africa. Despite its initial immateriality, there’s plenty of exposition to be had here and Hanks’ character instantly is painted as a doting, concerned parent who’s just having to do his job.
Phillips seems to be quite the meticulous and cautious man, albeit a thoroughly disciplined and capable leader, whose experience on the water has always served him well. His latest route will take him and a crew of twenty around the horn of Africa, to dock in Mombasa, Kenya with a massive shipment of food and other relief supplies. However, they soon find themselves in hostile waters off the coast of Somalia and become the latest target of a group of vicious and desperate fishermen/hijackers.
The degree to which Hanks elevates the film cannot be overstated, yet the rest of the cast deserves equal attention. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi who plays Muse, one of the hijackers, is mesmerizing, bringing a level of despair and aggressiveness to a character that is acting completely out of necessity, motivated by desperation.
Along with him, the other hijackers represent varying states of fraying sanity as they impose their will upon the crew of the Maersk-Alabama. The advantage we are given as the audience is that we are introduced to these folks in their towns; we watch them gather frantically in the hopes of scoring another payday, fighting for the right to be the next person to get to hijack a ship.
Indeed, one of the achievements of Captain Phillips is providing many perspectives, all the while Greengrass remains neutral with his camera. Points of view shift with increasing frequency between the rapidly high-profile hostage, the pirates and the numerous Navy officials who work tirelessly to solve the situation peacefully. The moment in which the ship falls under control of the pirates is so much more compelling as we see both walks of life converging in one chaotic, unbearably tense scene. Early on in the film, we are treated to a moment that may rival the stress levels of anything demonstrated in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.
Greengrass also really knows how to wrap up his film. The ending is one of the most emotional and difficult things to watch in the entire two-plus-hour hold up. I won’t call it a predictable film, but at the same time, it can’t really end in any way other than how one will probably suspect from the very beginning. The takeaway here will be the way in which Hanks sells the aftermath of his rescue; the emotional and physical toll that he suffers from is remarkable, and should leave you in a state of exhaustion when its all said and done.
Sharp character writing and a well-developed story, one that withstands the toughest of scrutiny, propel Captain Phillips into the league of 2013’s finest offerings. Not only is it a well-articulated recounting of the hellish experiences of Rich Phillips in the days following his ship’s hostile take-over, but there are larger brushstrokes at work as well.
Time and again the ever-diplomatic captain is apt to question the motives of his captors. It’s a 36 hour boat ride from where his Maersk-Alabama sits dead in the water and to the Somalian coast, where the pirates are attempting to reach. All Captain Phillips can do to pass some time in incredible discomfort is chat up his captors, at one point suggesting that “Surely there’s more you can do than fishing and kidnapping people. . . ,” to which Muse has only one response: “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”
Ultimately, this movie comes down to an acting battle between Abdi and Hanks — a competition to see whose spirit will crack first, and when it does, what will happen next? A surprisingly complex morality tale, Cap’n also demands strong willpower from its viewers — its long, somewhat limited in terms of its scenery, and emotionally draining. That said, it’s a voyage you’ll completely regret not embarking on, especially on the big screen.
Recommendation: I can’t believe I am doing this yet again, but Captain Phillips makes a strong bid for one of my favorite movies of this year. (October and the tail-end of September seems to have been a sweet spot this year.) I HIGHLY suggest as many people as possible get to the theater to experience the latest Tom Hanks masterpiece. The setting isn’t quite as novel as Gravity‘s, but its just as intense, if not more so. I could not get enough of the adrenaline rush this film provides.
Running Time: 134 mins.
Quoted: “Look at me. I am the captain now.”
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