Looking over Tom Hanks’ filmography, it’s strange to realize what a downturn his career has been on as of late. Unless you’re one of those crazy people who like Cloud Atlas, he hasn’t been in a mainstream feel good success since the early 2000s. (Side note: remember when The Da Vinci Code was going to be a huge franchise? Weird right!). Despite the deadly serious subject matter of Captain Phillips, I feel that it contains the Tom Hanks of Cast Away and Catch Me If You Can rather than the Tom Hanks of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Larry Crowne. This is most certainly a good thing.
Tom Hanks shines as the titular captain in this true to life story about the piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia in 2009. If ever there was a real life event that translated better to cinemas, I’m not aware of it. The film follows the ship on its entire journey, and there is very little in the way of explanation or throwaway lines to the audience. This adds to the tense realism, and even if you don’t know everything about operating a boat, the faces and vocal tones of Hanks and his crew set the mood expertly. Though the pirates show up within the first 30 minutes or so, you feel as though you’ve been with the crew of the Alabama a lot longer. Captain Phillips is a movie that’s easy to get lost in, like a novel with a surprise at the end of every chapter.
The pirates are portrayed by legitimate Somali actors. Barkhad Abdi in particular as Muse, the leader of their gang, turns in an amazingly chilling performance. The pirates argue with each other, settling their differences with the sort of ruthlessness that makes you fear for the lives of Phillips and his men. However, they have realistic motivations, and by the end of the film they are characterized not as heartless monsters, but as men who have nowhere else to turn. It is a masterful thing to turn a group of foreign brown men pointing AK-47s at Tom Hanks into anything but one note villainy in 2013, but director Paul Greengrass has done just that.
Perhaps the only time I had an issue comes late in the film. Phillips has been moved into a lifeboat in close proximity with the four pirates, and Muse speaks for a minute about his only goal being to go to America. Putting aside whether that is truthful or not, it smacks of pandering in a movie that does it nowhere else, and at other points in the film Muse seems solely driven by money, even making fun of the Americans he is seemingly jealous of. There was enough characterization without that nugget that it seemed very forced, especially considering the inevitable fate of the pirate crew.
Overall though, Captain Phillips is an intense thrill ride and a worthy record of the events on which it is based. There are many films coming out of Hollywood where “Based on a True Story” doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it’s clear that realism was the order of the day here. There were enough events that made the “Action” part of “Action Thriller” shine through, but everything was still grounded in the type of grit that many films shy away from. The genuine emotions on display from beginning to end were enough to penetrate my cynicism and make me root for the good guys for once. Any move that can do that is certainly worth your time.
In Theaters: October 11, 2013
Runtime: 134 min
Rating: Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Genre: Biographical Action Thriller
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Official Site: http://www.captainphillipsmovie.com/site/