Written by Billy Ray
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Tom Hanks has reached an important turning point in his career, and if Captain Phillips is any indication, we may not have to worry about him taking the wrong path. There is the path of least resistance and effort, the path of once-great acting titans like Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, who have replaced quality with quantity. De Niro and Pacino still have talent within them, burrowed beneath all the cash-grabs, as do other actors reaching AARP status, like Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. They simply choose to follow their checking accounts, not their hearts. Hanks could take the easy way out—and when he stars in movies like Angels and Demons, it’s not unfair to wonder if he is—but his work in Captain Phillips is impressive because it’s a firm and stoic reminder of why the world fell in love with him in the first place.
Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, who begins a two-week trip helming the USS Alabama from Oman to Kenya. The freighter is carrying tons of precious cargo, and is the latest in a long line of ships that may need to face off against pirates in the Somali Basin who wish to loot their load and take away whatever they can. And at the tail end of a security drill, Phillips finds himself (and his small, mostly unarmed crew) being followed by a group of Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), all of them dead-set on getting money to appease their impatient, greedy gangster bosses. And so, the conflict, based on a true story, begins, Phillips and his crew attempting to outsmart the pirates without getting terribly harmed.
With the exception of the opening scene, Captain Phillips is a straightforward, tense, claustrophobic affair, as much a product of Hanks’ increasingly desperate work as it is Paul Greengrass’ style. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Greengrass’ shaky-cam tendencies are on display here, but it’s never too sickening or incomprehensible, as certain aspects of his Bourne movies ended up being. The handheld photography, by Barry Ackroyd, does an admirable job of heightening the tension, often allowing Phillips’ point of view to be the audience’s, watching as the quartet of pirates grow more uncertain of their mission. Once the U.S. Navy shows up to salvage their side of the struggle, things quickly spiral out of the pirates’ tenuous control, and the camera captures this lack of surety excellently. Just as in Bloody Sunday and United 93, Greengrass utilizes shaky camerawork to his benefit, far more than in his other films.
That aside, Captain Phillips is not a showy film, its characters not given to grandstanding or flamboyance. Even Muse, the gaunt and intense leader of the pirates, in spite of being fleshed out as more than just a nefarious thief, doesn’t say too much. The script, by Billy Ray, only allows Phillips one or two times to let his emotions override his good sense; those moments are still fairly muted, the time-sensitive suspense of the situation always driving the action. That, in essence, is what makes Captain Phillips work so well: once the basic conflict arises—the pirates approaching the ship, which is an action sequence unto itself, well before they board it—the film doesn’t slow down or catch its figurative breath. What little we know about Phillips (a family man) and Muse (smart enough to know the precarious nature of his criminal life, but willing to deny the severity of his fate) spurs them forward in the final two-thirds of Captain Phillips.
Hanks is, in every way, the star of the film. Outside of only one other actor, there aren’t any name performers here, just a handful of veteran TV guest stars like Chris Mulkey and Yul Vazquez. There’s just Catherine Keener, as Phillips’ wife, who shows up in the aforementioned opening, which stands out like a sore thumb. Not only is it unnecessary—a weak attempt to humanize Phillips and ascribe a vague context to the proceedings as Phillips experiences them—it’s riddled with clunky dialogue about how the world has changed from when they were their children’s age. That aside, Hanks is the anchor of the film as a no-nonsense type whose initially brittle nature (as when the captain brusquely cuts off playful banter among his crew to get them back to work) ends up paying off when his wariness about being waylaid turns out to be dead-on. It’s hard to say that Hanks surprises here—even in the final few scenes, where he’s given the opportunity to be unexpectedly, emotionally raw, and does so exceptionally—but what he does is reassert his worth as an actor and star.
Captain Phillips, like its lead character, is a no-nonsense film. There’s very little humor to be found, and even less breathing room. The second half, especially, is intensely claustrophobic, a handful of characters in a literally and morally tight spot trying to survive one trip across the endless ocean. It may be seem hyperbolic, but this film also offers up Tom Hanks’ best acting since Cast Away. (“May” because the work he’s done in the last 13 years has been spotty, if sometimes daring.) He’s long been considered the modern Jimmy Stewart, who aged about as gracefully as possible out of his heartthrob days, working in darker, more complex films. Though Captain Phillips is not his most complex film or character, Tom Hanks fits the role and film perfectly, laying himself bare by the stunning final moments.
— Josh Spiegel