For the last thirty years, Tom Hanks has become widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors stemming from his exceptional performances in the likes of Philadelphia, Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan. But his post-Millennium work has been somewhat mixed for the two-time Oscar winner ranging from the good (Road to Perdition, Toy Story 3) to the woeful (The Terminal, Larry Crowne). Fortunately 2013 looks certain to bring him back to his former acting glory with his latest role in the gripping true-life thriller Captain Phillips. Aided by the direction of British filmmaker Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum), the pair team up to tell the incredible true story of one man and his crew as they encountered danger from some rather nasty pirates….
SYNOPSIS: In March 2009, veteran captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew sail along the Somali coast in their US cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. Unfortunately their journey is disrupted when the ship is hijacked by a quartet of gun-welding Somalians spearheaded by determined leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi). As the crew hide out in the engine room, Phillips tries to negotiate with the pirates but Muse intends to find those who are hiding. But when the crew members try to seize back control, the Somalians take Phillips hostage and manage to escape from the ship via a lifeboat. The navy are soon brought in knowing full well that the US skipper’s life is at risk as his captors try to bring him back to Somalia.
Like his previous effort United 93, Paul Greengrass succeeds in building up the tension in his latest film by showing us the points of view from both Phillips and his crew, and of the Somalian bandits whose lives will dramatically cross at sea in this pulsating game of cat and mouse. While the results of Captain Phillips are nowhere near as tragic and harrowing as those of the 9/11 film from 2006, you are still left completely drained about what has gone on by the time the credits roll. A trait that has become very noticeable in Greengrass’ films has been his constant use of the shaky cam which is used again here as he captures the dizzy and claustrophobic moments on board the ship once the pirates arrive to cause havoc. This is all captured immaculately by the masterful editing of Christopher Rouse while Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography crisply comes into play when the situation switches to Phillips being held captive inside the lifeboat. The other key aspect of the production department is writer Billy Ray as he ably assists Greengrass with a well-structured script. It enables us to root for Phillips from beginning to end as he becomes aware of the potential danger and shows resilience in trying to protect his crew from their captors. But at the same time, Ray never tries to portray the gaunt-looking antagonists as dastardly evil even when their own arrogance and poor decision making will ultimately cause their own doom. Instead, we see them as desperate men doing what they have to do in order to survive which creates some unlikely sympathy from audiences. Given his lack of brilliant performances in recent times, Tom Hanks makes a stunning return to dramatic acting with his role as the authoritative Phillips. Whether it be the opening scene where he discusses fears about the world his children will grow up in to his wife or the emotionally-powerful last fifteen minutes where his character’s life is placed at dangerous risk, Hanks produces moments of raw vulnerability that should hopefully ensure him a return to the Oscar table. However it isn’t all about the Hollywood man in terms of acting dominance as newcomer Barkhad Abdi proves over the court of the film. Looking gaunt and devilishly referring to Phillips as “Irish”, Muse is a man layered with pride yet tries to be as intimidating as possible to show he is control. Had this been a routine action blockbuster, the character could easily have been portrayed as a boo-hiss villain but Abdi is able to produce a complex turn that is supported greatly by the way he is written in Ray’s terrific script. Another bold move by Greengrass is his decision to cast unknown actors and real-life marine soldiers to produce a more realistic tone to the film that worked out so well in United 93.
The film does suffer from a few lapses which just prevent it from being a 2013 masterpiece. Some of you expecting a fast-paced thriller will probably be left disappointed as the film takes time to build up to the main confrontation and begins to drag a little when Phillips gets forced onto the lifeboat. Those who have read about the real-life story may also be put off by some of the revelations that have come out since the film’s release which suggest that Phillips was far more unlikeable then portrayed here. However you can blame that on the Hollywood-persona that want to make the story as sentimental and powerful as possible. Finally, the people who dislike Greengrass’ Bourne films will have a hard time trying to sit through this outing because of its constant use of the shaky-cam method which is bound to leave some viewers feeling dizzy.
VERDICT: Despite questions about its authenticity and a slightly overlong running time, Captain Phillips is a riveting and crisply-made film about human survival with the supreme Tom Hanks producing one of his best performances.