About a year ago I had been planning to write an article about great nineties film people who haven’t done anything really good for quite some time. It would have included people like Kevin Spacey, Tobey Maguire and centrally, Tom Hanks. Hanks was ubiquitous throughout that decade, appearing in numerous key films, rising to the top of the box office leading men chart, and winning two Oscars. At the end of last year, I would have said Hanks hadn’t really been in a good film since 2002. He was far less prolific as an actor in the 2000s (though accumulating more production credits), and when he did appear, it tended to be in mediocre fare like The Da Vinci Code or Larry Crowne (voice work in Toy Story 3 being the only exception). I scrapped the article after viewing Cloud Atlas near the start of the year, a divisive film to be sure but still my favourite of 2013. Now, Hanks really appears to be back in a major way, he still has Saving Mr. Banks coming out before the end of the year, and here we have Captain Phillips.
Make no mistake; Hanks’s work in this film is up there with the very best performances he’s given. The role is suited to him to be sure, it channels his appeal as an everyman but requires him to deliver a wide range of emotions in a difficult situation. Without spoiling anything, how he must react to his altered situation in the film’s final third results in a tremendous piece of acting, that’s already lead to rumours of him equalling the Oscar record set by Daniel Day-Lewis only last year.
Likewise the story of Captain Phillips seem tailor made to suit the sensibilities of director Paul Greengrass, a specialist in ‘real-word action thrillers’ (The overpraised Bourne sequels )and retellings of recent history (Bloody Sunday, United 93). It’s interesting to think what other filmmakers might have made of the story, it could very easily have been turned in to a jingoistic pro-military film, or a ‘Die Hard on a container ship’ type action film (I know Under Siege already did ‘Die Hard on a Boat’).
In Greengrass’s hands the story becomes more than either of those possibilities though. The film is as much about the pirates (their leader anyway) as it is about Captain Phillips. The film contains two opening scenes, one of Phillips leaving his house with his wife and another of Muse, the pirate leader, being awoken in his village in Somalia. We are then shown the circumstances leading to the attack. The pirates are required to pay money to Somali warlords and have no other means of acquiring it. It’s particularly troubling to see the selection process, similar to a school sports team, as many young men rush to the beach wanting to join the crew but there are only a select few spots available. Muse is effectively played by Somali-born newcomer Barkhad Abdi, a skeletal yet always intimidating presence, whose time in the film is about equal to that of Phillips.
Even with its awards buzz, (very) recent history inspiration and deft handling, Captain Phillips is still essentially an action thriller at its core; Phillips himself though, is not any kind of typical action hero. That’s not to say he’s cowardly (quite the opposite) but his dynamic situation, and his responses to it are something rarely seen in action cinema, the final act is seriously powerful stuff. The film also contains some commentary on the global economic situation that the Somalis feel have forced them into piracy. These moments are brief and for the most part unobtrusive; they do help in making the pirates feel like fully three-dimensional characters, rather than easily hateful, cut-out villains.
One thing I couldn’t help finding strange is how easy it appeared to be for the pirates to board and take over the ship, especially considering how few of them there were. I imagine this must reflect the reality of the hijacking but also wonder how if the film would have come in for some flak here if it were fictional.
Captain Phillips is a different kind of action thriller, taking a ‘docudrama’ approach to recent history grounded firmly in reality, exploring a little of the situations that can lead to such an event, but primarily concerned with offering a gripping, nail-bitingly tense, two-sided hostage story.