Everyone loves Tom Hanks. He has been in so many iconic movies over the years, and some of us have grown up on his films. He's tackled some of the most recognizable, enigmatic and beloved characters in the history of the cinematic medium. And the perception of him (not to mention the word-of-mouth reputation) is that he's just a really nice dude. We didn't really need a reminder that we like him, but I'm not going to complain when he gives us one. Captain Phillips is just that reminder. It's a blisteringly affecting powerhouse of a film. And you if you didn't see it in the theaters, you need to see it on DVD since it was released on Tuesday.
The movie recounts the tale of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship, by a group of desperate Somali pirates. End of synopsis.
I was in the dark as to the actual tale of this hijacking (yes, I know, shame on me), but if you know the headlines already, then you know how this ends. I intentionally avoided researching anything prior to watching the movie so as to not deflate any of the tension. Having no idea what the outcome would be added an extra element of nervousness to what was already a nerve-shredding exercise in masterclass suspense.
Director Paul Greengrass pulled a similar trick with his excellent United 93. We all knew how that film would end, but somehow he managed to suspend our disbelief and think that maybe, just maybe, it would rewrite history. That is one of Greengrass's greatest gifts: the man knows how to build tension and engage the audience on a primal, fight-or-flight sort of level. While his visual techniques tend to favor the visceral (though never mistake this for a lack of control; his work demonstrates a frightening level of discipline), his skill in developing (and actually paying off) suspense is outright Hitchcockian.
The direction on this film is captivating and meticulously honed. Billy Ray's script often moves at a breakneck speed, but never fails to pause to give necessary character moments their appropriate breathing room. It eschews exposition readily, rather allowing us to absorb the relevant details from the characters as we experience their trauma alongside them. A sort of subjective character and story development technique.
Hanks is a powerhouse here, turning in what is easily his greatest performance in more than a decade (probably since Cast Away, if I had to pick). He grounds Phillips as a focused and confident (albeit appropriately paranoid) leader and, furthermore, as a docile and genuine everyman. There are dark layers beneath that peek through, and we can tell this is a man who has been weathered by life, but not hardened by it. He's merely learned to adapt and focus on what needs to be done. You can tell that his life experiences have lead him to err on the side of caution, and you heed the gravity of his requests for the crew to run safety drills covering piracy situations. When one such drill is interrupted by actual pirates raiding their ship, what could have clearly become a "see, I told you so" moment plays out selflessly. Orders are given, orders are taken, the crew (for the most part) no longer question or doubt their new captain.
And rarely have I seen such an effective and haunting portrayal of post traumatic stress disorder or such a terse and grueling depiction of one's final moments as they know their life is about to end committed to film. One that's replete with the obvious "tell my wife I love her and I'm sorry" type cries manically repeated, yet it never manages to come off as a cliché. This is some of the most raw, honest, human emotional despair I've seen burst out of an actor since ... I'm not even sure. At least not at this level. Couple Hanks's brilliant performance with Greengrass's deft cinematography and editing and what you have is one of the most powerful and brutally nerve-racking final 20 to 30 minutes of cinema in recent memory. With no hyperbole I can honestly say there were several moments I simply forgot to breathe in this finale.
Barkhad Abdi plays counterpart to Hanks as Muse, the desperate leader of the Somali pirates. A first time actor (really, he's done NOTHING), he infuses his villain with genuine humanity, and Greengrass paints him as wholly sympathetic. I dare anyone to watch this film and not feel for Muse. He is bound to his way of life and what is expected of him by his superiors. He has to prove himself so that he can make his superiors proud and provide a living. He's not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's the most dedicated and determined. He's not afraid to take dangerous action (read: anyone could die at any given moment if he is pushed too far), but he also can't abandon his humanity. He cares. But eventually, as he explains, he's come too far to turn back. Sometimes you have to see things through. To the bitter, tragic end. That in the final moments of the film I felt sympathy for BOTH Phillips and Muse is a huge achievement that the film manages to pull off splendidly. Abdi is magnificent.
Greengrass brilliantly chose to keep Hanks and crew and Abdi and crew separate until they met in the film. They were holed up in separate hotels, they rehearsed in separate areas and then they finally met in the big scene where they all encounter each other in the film for the first time. And it shows. Nothing feels too staged, everything feels organic and it all has a very real sense of immediacy. I found this aspect fascinating, and it absolutely enhances what's on screen.
Not unlike Gravity, Captain Phillips is one of the most exhaustingly suspenseful films of 2013. When all is said and done and the film finally ends (and I don't consider this a spoiler), we're given little (and by this I mean zero) catharsis. The audience is left to sit in the dark with their shredded nerves as the credits roll. Which feels appropriate. And real. Quite simply, this movie devastated me. I saw it in the theater not long after seeing Gravity and between these two films alone, I have to say I've been completely shaken by cinema in 2013 enough to last me for several years to come. Without question, Captain Phillips was one of the best films of 2013.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
PREVIOUS MOVIE REVIEW: Actors can't save Out of the Furnace, one of the worst movies of 2013
SUBSCRIBE TO GOING FOR GUSTO: Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. Spam free, and you can opt out at any time.
Filed under: Movies