Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance abuse.
Running time: 134 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
There’s a scene at the end of “Captain Phillips” in which Richard Phillips, the all-business captain of an American cargo ship that’s been invaded by Somali pirates, finally reveals the cumulative toll this ordeal has taken on him. After days of threats and thirst, maneuvering and manipulation within cramped spaces in the middle-of-nowhere western Indian Ocean, Phillips — played by Tom Hanks — now can allow himself to breathe, tremble, weep, and begin the process of healing.
The entire performance is one of the greatest in Hanks’ prolific, varied career — a role that gives him a massive arc and the opportunity to show great range. Paul Greengrass’ film is based on the true story of a 2009 pirate attack off the Somalian coast, and despite the inescapable tension the director achieves, we know that the real-life Phillips made it out alive; this is no spoiler here, folks, he wrote the book that provided the basis for this movie. But what Hanks does is extraordinary because it’s so subtle: He’s the hardworking everyman who becomes an accidental hero, but he also must remain accessible as he serves as our guide through this harrowing world. He has moments of daring but many more of quiet resourcefulness.
Yes, his New England accent is distractingly bad, and Phillips wasn’t the most jovial of fellows on the high seas, which initially makes it difficult for the crew members of the Maersk Alabama (and for us) to warm up to him. But when the situation gets gnarly — and it does, in a hurry — you want this veteran, a man of strength, smarts and preparedness, on your side. Hanks masterfully handles both the mundane, early moments on the ship as well as the manic, later ones.
Which brings us back to the scene I mentioned at the beginning of the review, and the stylistic tendency of Greengrass’ that keeps his very good film from being great. Phillips had put on a brave face for both his captors and his crew for so long. Once he’s safe and under the care of Navy medical specialists, he finally lets go; covered in blood — most of which is not his own — he stammers in shock. He’s bewildered. He can’t believe he made it out alive. It’s a tremendous piece of acting; his performance seems unforced, yet the catharsis is palpable. Still, Greengrass feels the need to rove with his camera and overpower the scene further with a dramatic score when the inherent drama of the moment is more than sufficient.
This kind of in-your-face, kinetic filmmaking, which we’ve come to know as Greengrass’ signature, can be a distraction but it can also be his strength. As in his excellent “United 93,” about the hijacked flight that crash-landed in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, he’s telling a story to which we already know the outcome. But his action sequences are so intimate and detailed and he cranks up the suspense so steadily, we find ourselves immersed nonetheless.
“Captain Phillips” begins on what should have been an ordinary morning as Phillips’ wife (a woefully underused Catherine Keener — seriously, she’s in one scene) drives him to the Burlington, Vt., airport for his latest journey. This establishing scene is the weakest in Billy Ray’s script, as Phillips and his wife speak broadly and blandly about how the world is changing so quickly all around them.
Once Phillips and his men take off for their trip around the Horn of Africa, it doesn’t take long for a ragtag but brazen group of Somali outlaws to hop in their speedboats and head in their direction, with dollar signs in their eyes in the millions. Armed with automatic weapons, a ladder and just enough technology (and stimulants) to make them dangerous, they cop the jacked-up bravado of Wild West desperadoes gearing up for a train heist — one of many examples in “Captain Phillips” of the repercussions of globalization.
Their leader is a young man named Muse, aptly nicknamed Skinny for his nearly emaciated appearance. The fact that he’s so intimidating despite his slight frame is part of his frightening allure. Barkhad Abdi, a 27-year-old former limousine driver making his acting debut, appears opposite Hanks for nearly all of his screen time and surprisingly holds his own with the Oscar-winner. (Abdi, however, is the only one of the four actors playing the pirates who gets the benefit of much characterization; the others are sort of interchangeably crazed with greed.)
Phillips, Muse and their men engage in an increasingly fraught game of cat and mouse, both on board the massive cargo ship and within the much smaller and more cramped lifeboat in which Phillips and the attackers ultimately find themselves. Greengrass’ skill is really on display in both of these scenarios, given that he has to provide perspective, tension and narrative drive in a disparate and challenging spectrum of spaces.
But because “Captain Phillips” is a big, American studio picture that aims to wow audiences as well as awards voters, Greengrass also has to portray good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, and hang those tags on people and struggles that can’t be categorized so easily in the real world. We want to be unnerved for a couple of hours (and “Captain Phillips” could have benefited from some trimming) but we also want to walk away feeling good about ourselves. The pirates may suffer from a lack of motivation and characterization, but we’re left cheering: America … fuck yeah!
And oh yeah, that Tom Hanks — he can really act.