Captain Phillips (2013, Paul Greengrass)


Recent history isn’t always the easiest thing to justify as the basis of entertainment. The jury is still out on how necessary United 93 was, and there are hundreds of thousands of TV movies across the decades to challenge every All the President’s Men or The Insider. Two of the strongest and most fascinating cases for the ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama in the last decade were both written and directed by one Billy Ray, who made something miraculously dramatic of the seemingly insulated stories of fabulist Stephen Glass and FBI double agent Robert Hanssen in Shattered Glass and Breach respectively. Captain Phillips, based faithfully upon the Somali pirate hostage crisis of early 2009, would seem a mixed blessing, carrying with it a script from Ray (fresh from his uncharacteristic adaptation of The Hunger Games) but directed by Greengrass, who helmed United 93 in a fit of shaky cam and unembellished dramatics that gave that film a slight (if tasteful) air of futility. Somehow, their talents coalesce beautifully in what’s likely the strongest and most sophisticated film either of them has made thus far.

There’s further context to explore here, in regard to lead actor Tom Hanks. There’s nothing suggesting initially that this is an out of character performance for Hanks, leaning on a gimmicky and overexaggerated Boston accent and the same facial nonchalance that has led some critics to mischaracterize him as a modern Jimmy Stewart. Hanks portrays the fast-thinking title character Richard Phillips, who attempted a peaceful thwarting of the infamous hijacking then was taken hostage for a harrowing three-day episode in a lifeboat being run by the pirates back to Somalia. The intelligence of Ray’s script undercuts any attempt that might be made to render simple heroism from Phillips or flag-waving Americana from the ensuing standoff and defeat of the enemy targets. The first evidence that Hanks’ performance might be something equally unusual is the way he nervously surveys the ship prior to departure and barks orders at a crew that clearly doesn’t care much for the way he conducts business. Before long, he has been fashioned by all concerned into a remarkably weighty character whose head we truly manage to enter; it’s likely Hanks’ first great performance since Catch Me If You Can and almost certainly, in my opinion, his finest purely dramatic work ever.

Director Greengrass doesn’t shed his preference for a wildly frenetic handheld style here; the film is a bit overwhelming and headache-inducing on a large screen, but given the intensity of the story being told, such a method seems mostly justified. For all its very human levity, this is not a film like Argo that asks us to be conscious of its cinematic origins — it’s a work of gritty, fully enveloping realism that nevertheless manages to execute some incredibly complex story information and remains taut and thrilling for more than 130 minutes. Its tension is unflagging, and while it sets up its plot carefully as an outgrowth of dull routine, it subscribes to an elegant thriller structure and doesn’t stop for even a moment thereafter — yet refuses to cut corners on story or characterization. The initial hostage strike is followed by a rebound, covert evasive tactics aboard the ship with Greengrass juggling numerous actions in several different areas of the craft (managing, despite his frantic camerawork, a real sense of the geography and layout and the relationship of one place to another), and then the cross-cut between the lifeboat and the action by the U.S. military for the remainder. Something like Zero Dark Thirty, with its broader scope and less convincing human element, is no comparison as either a thriller or a piece of popular modern history, and can’t claim to anything like Phillips‘ ambiguity about American might-makes-right policy.

That’s because the film doesn’t dehumanize or simplify its characters. The trailers for it heavily imply a good-versus-evil story, with the kindly white man defeating sinister poor dark people who approach his big castle-boat and harsh his Eric Clapton mellow with their grinning faces and threatening pronouncements. In fact, the film makes no apology for suggesting that piracy in Somalia — an epidemic of sorts in this period — is itself an outgrowth of American policies and, indeed, a class system that permanently leaves the nation’s citizens in a state of dependency and disenfranchisement. The four men operating the lifeboat with Phillips’ life at their mercy are all fully developed and believable, none more than their leader Muse, played with absolute brilliance and spark by newcomer Barkhad Abdi in one of the more startling debut performances of recent American cinema. Muse shows some empathy for Phillips but, more importantly, worldlessly indicates to him the strife and desperation that have led him here.

The others on his team (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali) are seen as enemies only if one takes the simplest view of these proceedings. Ray and Greengrass track the crisis more than anything as the inevitable outgrowth of forces beyond control of any of the characters we see, which gives the film a sense of absolute tragedy that Greengrass could never have achieved with the cut-and-dried structure of United 93. These ambiguities may stretch the running time of Captain Phillips slightly. It’s longer than a thriller should generally be, but Greengrass fully justifies this extravagance; there is no flabbiness, and no waste of a weighty moment, and nothing that needs tightening. He is conscious of what detail is necessary, which is a lot; the delving into the mechanics of how the crew secures the Alabama and how the Navy rescues Phillips only adds to the intensity of the film.

In a film overloaded, despite its scaled-back cast list, with great performances, including one as unforgettable as Abdi’s, it feels strange to say that Hanks himself is the strongest of the many reasons to see Captain Phillips. Every one of us, however, who’ve always said that Hanks was best in comedies and overrated elsewhere, must now eat crow. He’s completely believable, almost chillingly real here; even in his slightly pedantic moments lecturing the Somali men, he seems quite logically to be enacting the way a sheltered white man in a position of power would behave in these circumstances. But in the last ten minutes, something incredible happens — ten of the most astonishing minutes of acting captured on film, to my knowledge. Hanks’ work at the end of this movie shatters every macho ideal, every cool-headed heroic act in the history of action cinema. It is a deconstruction of the cinema of machismo itself. It’s perfect; it earns every possible award that might be thrown at him. It retroactively justifies Forrest Gump. It can be reduced to “Hanks plays a man who has gone into shock,” but it’s so much more. It’s hard to imagine from where this guy with a tirelessly, laboriously ordinary image pulled these emotions, but it is, to say the least, something to see and not to soon forget.

Those of us who’ve been in Ray’s tank since Shattered Glass will inevitably wish that he had been given an opportunity to direct, even though Greengrass fulfills all of his vaguely suggested potential here and proves himself capable of rendering something richly emotional and justly complicated out of his hot-button, drive-by shooting style. With the right resources, I believe Ray has a consistent enough aesthetic and a sufficient brilliance at directing actors that he could someday make a masterpiece, and maybe this would have been it — but it’s also hard to imagine how anyone could have improved on what Captain Phillips has turned out to be. That would be a film that I loved even though it made me feel ill, which is a compliment enough that I shouldn’t even have to say this: it actually hurts to admit that Gravity was not the best major release out in 2013, that this was superior, but I have to. As exhilarated as I was after Gravity, this gave me a more plowed-over and psyched-up feeling than I’ve had coming out of a theater in a long time. I walked out and said “wow”; I drove to my apartment, unlocked the door, popped Excedrin and said “wow” again. This rugged, shaky, terrifying journey put me through the wringer. I was there; that’s about the size of it.

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