If the phrase, “you’re only as good as your last picture,” is to be believed, then Tom Hanks isn’t a very good actor. That’s probably a reach but Hanks has been off his game for quite some time now. His last three movies in particular – Cloud Atlas, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Larry Crowne – all failed to find traction with audiences and critics. But the mark of a true artist is resilience, and in Captain Phillips, Hanks once again reminds us why he is and always will be one of the consummate actors of the modern era.
Based on true events that took over world headlines in 2009, Captain Phillips chronicles the hijacking of the cargo ship MAERSK Alabama by Somali pirates and its aftermath during which the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips (Hanks) was taken hostage. When we first meet Phillips, he’s on his way to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener) bemoaning the poor state of the world. In the scenes that follow, we learn that he’s a strict, by-the-books type of man who keeps his crew on a tight leash, and who’d rather keep to himself than engage in friendly conversation over coffee. While this attitude doesn’t earn him brownie points with his crew, it’s nevertheless effective in earning him their respect.
As the Alabama heads out into open waters from its base in Oman to Mombasa, we’re simultaneously introduced to a situation in a coastal Somali village. A local drug lord has been terrifying the village for money and the only way to procure it is through hijacking foreign vessels. Among the villagers is a man named Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Even though Muse isn’t a physically imposing figure, he commands attention among his comrades. He’s fiercely intelligent, cunning and persistent. When the time comes to go on a hijacking mission, Muse is immediately selected as the captain, along with three others.
When Muse and crew learn that the Alabama is in nearby waters, they think they’ve hit the jackpot (the Alabama was the first American ship to be hijacked in 200 years). But Phillips is an equally intelligent and resourceful sailor who gives them a tough time on the choppy waters of the Gulf of Aden. However, Muse’s persistence prevails and eventually, he and his team are able to board the Alabama and take command of the ship. What starts off as and cut-and-dry hijacking turns into a tense hostage crisis when the Alabama crew, under the tutelage of Phillips, fight back, using their knowledge of the ship’s layout to disorient the pirates.
Although the details surrounding the events of the film are common knowledge to anyone well-versed in current events, revealing more about the plot would be to undermine the craftsmanship of this riveting and unnerving drama that’s cut from the same cloth like Apollo 13 and Argo, movies whose endings are well-known yet remain incredibly dramatic. A lot of the credit here goes to director Paul Greengrass, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who has made a career out of gritty, intense thrillers like the Bourne movies, Bloody Sunday and his sensational United 93. Although his trademark handheld (read: shaky) cameras can be off-putting and disorienting at times, this verite-style intensity serves this story extremely well, succeeding in keeping our hearts racing.
Screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach) also deserves credit for his lean, unbiased screenplay that refuses to paint a broad black & white picture of the events. The Somalis may be the antagonists of the story but Ray’s layered screenplay ensures that we see them as more than moustache-twirling terrorists. This is a work that takes time to portray these men as victims of circumstance. Muse used to be a fisherman but thanks to corporate encroachment, his lifestyle has been made extinct. And Abdi’s terrific performance as the man forced to take desperate measures to survive is a big reason why we sympathize with them.
Ultimately though, this is Hanks show and it’s his towering performance that sells it. We’re used to Hanks playing ordinary men put in extraordinary circumstances (Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away) and Richard Phillips fits that bill. However, what makes this performance different from most of his previous work is its deliberate lack of emotion. For much of the film, his Phillips is a stoic figure – cool under pressure, always using his wits to stay step ahead of the situation. But as the situation worsens, Hanks slowly reveals the cracks beneath Phillips seemingly-icy demeanor. The actor shows us the desperation in this man’s eyes, and how he realizes that with every passing moment, his chances at survival diminish. It all culminates in a cathartic and emotionally-devastating sequence that cements Hanks place as one of the all-time greats. Welcome back Tom, we missed you.