I can’t help but to think that Tom Hanks has easily proven himself now as one of the most diverse and interesting actors around. This ‘based on a true story’ drama is just another ‘notch in the belt’; further evidence of his skill and conviction to bringing his characters to effective life. He’s terrific here, as the captain of the Maersk Alabama, the well-publicized commercial freighter that was hijacked off the coast of Somalia in 2009.
The film tracks the lead-up to the hijacking, followed by the tense drama that unfolded afterwards…drama the ultimately wound up involving the US Navy, and a team of SEALS that put forth a daring and intricate plot to rescue the captured captain, and to bring his Somali kidnappers to justice.
Now, it’s come to my attention that there are various conflicting stories going on about what REALLY happened on the Maersk Alabama, and the artistic license that was woven into the shooting script, but for all intensive purposes, my main goal is to examine the film and it’s dramatic and narrative qualities, as just a film.
Right off, it must be said…this is a very accomplished movie for director Paul Greengrass. Most people associate Greengrass with ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ (2004) and ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ (2007), films that he infused with a hectic, lightning-fast editing style coupled with an over-abundance of near-annoying ‘shaky cam’. Which isn’t to say they were bad…not at all. They were just…very…’busy’. Going into this one, I was afraid that Greengrass might take his trade-mark ‘moving frame’ style, and dial it up to 11 for this story, but I’m happy to report that, while this flick does have a good dose of THAT style, it’s equally offset by some surprisingly restrained compositions and edits. Given the ‘real-world’ immediacy of the narrative, what ‘shaky cam’ IS present feels completely legitimate, and lends well to the stories presentation.
Another area that Greengrass succeeded was in his casting. For the most part, the movie belongs to the Captain Phillips character, which Hanks excels with. Acting as his ‘foil’ is an alien-looking first-time African actor named Barkhad Abdi. Abdi portrays the pirate ‘leader’, a somewhat bullied former fisherman named ‘Muse’. The scenes in which Phillips and Muse try to constantly jockey for control of the situation are masterfully handled, to the point where I caught myself (at times) sympathizing with Muse, and the situation that led him and his haphazard group of Khat-addicted minions to bite off FAR more than they could chew. It’s the ‘establishment’ of the pirates that demonstrates Greengrass’s ability to deliver lean, ‘economical’ but effective exposition. In the span of one scene, we see that these former fisherman’s lives pretty much suck due to rampant poverty and dangerous living conditions. Add to that the prospect of a greedy Somali warlord breathing threateningly down their necks…and suddenly they become a collection of desperate men trying to forge out a life in the only way that seems left to them. Crime…namely piracy. Greengrass could’ve easily taken The Easy Route and simply portrayed Muse and his men as one-dimensional villains who deserve nothing more than a dose of Stallone-level justice, but in the end he made a brave and intelligent decision that added some human ‘dimension’ to them.
The portrayal of the other side of the ‘issue’, The US Military, was also masterfully handled. All the Navy characters rang true for me, with seemingly careful attention given to elements like speech, equipment and procedure. There’s a sequence in the 3rd Act involving nothing more than a Navy corpsman (or woman, in this case) and her conversation with Phillips that really brought about two terrific sides of the acting in the flick. Hanks delivers a powerful, gut-wrenching performance while the actress(?) playing the medic maintains a completely convincing military baring, underscored by a believable human ‘core’. It’s a scene that The Academy should keep an eye on, come awards season.
Regarding the US military’s apparent involvement, there are some impressive visuals on display involving maneuvers and actions from 3 Navy vessels (in close proximity), and at least one Sea Hawk helicopter. Greengrass evidently had some money and clout to play with.
If a comparison is needed, I would say that ‘Captain Phillips’ could easily share the same Cinematic Military Universe as flicks like ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001), ‘Green Zone’ (2010) or, more accurately, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012). There is definitely grit and ‘realism’ here, and it works VERY well.
Another point that worked nicely was the well-disciplined use of tonally-perfect musical score. Many of the tension-laden scenes work well due to the complete absence of score but the scenes where it is used…are used well.
In a nutshell, ‘Captain Phillips’ is a well-constructed, effectively paced dramatic thriller featuring another great Tom Hanks performance. Regardless of the ‘facts’, this movie is riveting in it’s delivery, and enlightening in it’s exploration of the consequences, both legal and personal, that an incident of this magnitude would have on everybody involved. This flick definitely deserves your attention.