I have to be honest: I have very little to say about the latest starring work from Tom Hanks except that it's expertly made by director Paul Grenegrass (UNITED 93, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM), had me tense almost from the first frame, and features note-perfect acting from Hanks, the men who play his crew and especially the four first-time actors playing the Somali pirates, especially Barkhad Abdi playing their leader, Muse.
Since CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is based on a book about the real-life, high-profile 2009 incident, most people are going to go into this film knowing the fate of at least one major character. But as he did quite beautifully with UNITED 93, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray take a story in which the outcome is known and make the film less about the destination and more about the journey. But unlike the older film, the director makes an attempt to humanize the hijackers and give some context as to why ship-hijacking incidents shot up in this period. And while we're not exactly rooting for the hijackers to come out on top, there's at least an attempt to place these events in context.
And then there's Hanks as Richard Phillips, captaining a the container ship Maersk Alabama, the crew of which puts up a helluva defense when the pirates come. Greengrass structures the film to show us two parallel stories. One shows Phillips leaving his wife (a brief appearance by Catherine Keener) and family; there's a nice discussion about their kids before Phillips boards his ship that adds an air of normality to his life. The other shows Muse and his struggle for any amount of money, working for a crime boss who orders his men out on the high sea with inadequate boats with failing motors to target unsuspecting ships off the coast.
Once the pirates are on the ship, the film becomes something of a cat-and-mouse game between the hijackers and Phillips, whose strong combination of intelligence and being a great liar keeps his crew safe. But when he's taken by the four hijackers aboard the ship's lifeboat, the film takes a darker, more terrifying turn as the close quarters of the mini-ship drive everyone varying degrees of crazy and angry. Greengrass has the unique ability to generate a great deal of heat and emotion from a by-the-numbers approach to storytelling. And please ignore all of this "shaky-cam" nonsense. The movie takes place on the water; of course it gets shaky sometimes.
It's been a while since I've seen Hanks truly throw himself into something with quite this much vigor and commitment, to the point where you almost forget you're watching one of the most likable men in the world. Phillips is a bit of a brusque taskmaster, a boss who hovers over his crew when they're on a coffee break to make sure they get right back to work. It's fascinating to watch the subtle behavioral shifts in Phillips when fear is introduced into his life. There are a couple of brief moments when it looks like the pirates might give up (or at least Phillips hopes they will), and in those scenes, you can see Phillips' confidence return only to have it dashed when he realizes this will be more of a long-haul endeavor for him.
Not that we need our Somali pirates to be too human, but it is a welcome shift to allow at least one of them, Muse, to be a more fully rounded and articulate person, with clear motivations and no way out of this situation without coming away with millions of dollars in ransom. There's a moment when Phillips offers him $30,000 cash that the ship keeps in its safe, and the rejection of that money is telling because it's clear that if Muse comes back with only that money, he will be killed by his bosses. These four men are no innocents, to be sure, but their options for survival are incredibly limited and desperate.
The only other thing I want to mention about CAPTAIN PHILLIPS regards one of its final scenes, in which Hanks lets loose with a powerful, almost too uncomfortable to watch explosion of emotion. Phillips is in shock and his body simply lets go; it decompresses from all of its pent-up tension and partial belief that his death was eminent. You could cynically say that the moment is his Oscar clip (it would make a nice one), but it's also the truest testament to Hanks as a powerhouse actor.
Watching that scene almost makes me want to see him less in something like the upcoming SAVING MR. BANKS, in which he plays Walt Disney, because that kind of role is too easy for him. Hanks can create an entertaining character effortlessly, but what he does in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is create a person we can empathize with and worry about. It's one of his finest roles, and you may not even realize it. That's how acting is supposed to be.