Out of all of the incredible roles Tom Hanks has had throughout his storied career, his portrayal of Captain Richard Phillips in Paul Greengrass’ brilliant new film, Captain Phillips, may be one of his best performances yet. Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking attack on the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia, Captain Phillips doesn’t need to add Hollywood tricks to make the film suspenseful; the actual story speaks for itself.
Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) leaves his home in Vermont to take command of the container ship, the Maersk Alabama. Although he is a seasoned seaman, with years of experience, this trip from Oman to Kenya has him on edge. After all, he and his crew will have to sail through the pirate-heavy waters off the coast of Somalia in order to get their cargo to its destination. Unfortunately, shortly upon entering the dangerous sea route, Captain Phillips’ fears are realized when the Maersk Alabama is unable to outrun a crew of four heavily armed Somali pirates who inevitably hijack the ship. Now it is up to Phillips to keep calm and try to control the situation as best he can in order to ensure his crew is unharmed and his ship and cargo are safe. Will the U.S. Navy be able to respond in time to help or will the Maersk Alabama be lost to the hijackers?
Greengrass filmed Captain Phillips with a handheld camera, which makes you feel as though you are an imperiled crew member on the Maersk Alabama yourself. Although the outcome of the story is widely known, the suspense Greengrass generates both in the way he shoots the scenes and the situation itself will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the entire film; 2 ½ hours seems a lot shorter when a character is as emotionally investing as Captain Phillips.
I cannot state enough how fantastic Tom Hanks is in his portrayal of Captain Phillips, especially in the high-anxiety third act of the film. At times, due to Greengrass’ documentary-style film-making and Hanks’ superb acting, it almost feels as though you are watching this ordeal unfold in real time as a fly on the wall. Any lesser actor would be lost in the restraint and calmness of the role, but Hanks is able to convey the most subtle emotion through only a glance. The standout moment of the film for me was at the end, when Phillips is overwhelmed by the influx of emotions from his entire horrific experience. This moment alone guarantees Hanks a nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars this year, and so far, he is the person to beat.
The supporting cast, made of mostly unknown Somali nationals (and first-time actors) should also be commended for their ability to rise to the performance the script (and true story) demands. Each man has to be as terrifying as he is sympathetic, which is a hard feat for any actor, much less rookies playing in the Hanks-led big leagues. The lead hijacker Muse (played by a Minneapolis-based limo driver Barkhad Abdi) is especially fantastic at bringing an emotional edge to the film. Although he can tell the likelihood of getting Captain Phillips to Somalia is looking more and more hopeless, he says “I’ve come too far, Irish.” This simple statement is the most gut-wrenching line in the entire movie, and one that shows the audience that the situation is not only dire for Captain Phillips but for the hijackers as well if they come back with nothing to show for their efforts.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, what prevents me from giving it an “A”, is the fact that the audience is only given a “blink and you miss it” glimpse into the chaotic socio-economic climate of Somalia. Showing the environment and culture the Somalis encounter daily would be the perfect opportunity to not only inform the audience more about the characters’ motivations, but could also enlighten the broader public to the terrible disarray that is still going on in-country. Yes, the audience is given a brief glimpse into the pirates’ living arrangements, but that is basically it. At times, the antagonists’ motivations seem to be more about pride and status than survival and desperation. I wish Greengrass would have given a little more weight to the conditions that create the piracy problem instead of solely focusing on the outcome.
Despite my criticism regarding Greengrass’ lack of attention to the current situation in Somalia, Captain Phillips is easily one of the year’s best films and contains some of the strongest performances as well. It is definitely THE film to see this weekend, and one to add to your Oscar prediction list.
My Review: A-