Captain Phillips isn't really an action flick, but it is most certainly action-packed.
Captain Phillips isn't really a thriller, but there are moments in the film that will thrill you and chill you.
Captain Phillips most certainly isn't the kind of film that one usually considers to be Oscar bait, but it most assuredly will be sitting comfortably in my Top 10 and will most likely find itself possessing a handful of nominations once they are announced on January 16, 2014.
Headlining the nominations for Captain Phillips will no doubt be Tom Hanks, who does his best work since Cast Away here and perhaps his best performance ever as Richard Phillips, the real life Captain of the U.S. - flagged Maersk Alabama, an unarmed cargo ship that in 2009 became the first U.S. ship to be hijacked by Somali pirates far off the coast of Somalia.
Based upon the book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea," penned by Phillips with Stephan Tatty, Captain Phillips is the kind of film you expect from Paul Greengrass - thrilling from beginning to end and yet grounded in such a strong sense of authenticity that you leave the theater with both your chest pounding and your heart racing.
While Greengrass is primarily known as an action/thriller director, it's important to remember that he's also no stranger to awards season as his United 93 earned him his first directing Oscar nod a few years back. It wouldn't be surprising to see his name on the list again as he once again turns a familiar story into a film that is both meticulous in its detail and downright stressful in its presentation.
If we're being honest, Hanks has been better behind the scenes as of late with most of his screen time coming courtesy of such middle-of-the-road cinematic fare as Cloud Atlas, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Larry Crowne. Even when he's only acting like most of us imagine the real Tom Hanks to be, Tom Hanks remains one of the most bankable and likable stars in Hollywood. Captain Phillips is a reminder that Hanks also remains one of Hollywood's most talented and immersive actors with an ability to mold himself convincingly into characters in just about every genre of film.
Much like he did with United 93, Greengrass kicks off Captain Phillips in rather normal fashion as we meet Captain Phillips (Hanks) at home saying goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener) while thousands of miles away a Somali named Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi) has been recruited to lead a mission and stands on a beach recruiting his crew in much the same way one imagines day laborers being picked up alongside the road before they head out to work the fields.
Even if you are familiar with the story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, there's a good chance that the details contained within Billy Ray's taut and tense screenplay. The facts themselves may perhaps be arguable, several members of the crew have disputed the accuracy of the film's portrayal of Phillips, but whether the film is 100% accurate or primarily accurate in terms of tone and outcome it remains a riveting and involving film from beginning to end.
Hanks is one of those actors who is so familiar that you can easily forget just how good he can be. I admittedly worried myself silly that having a superstar like Hanks would prove to be distracting amongst a sea of mostly novices and newcomers, but such a worry was truly for naught. Hanks is utterly captivating as Captain Phillips, and easily sheds the Tom Hanks skin in favor of a Captain who lives and breathes with a quiet confidence yet who finds himself in a situation that would seem unfathomable for most Americans. From the film's earliest moments of normalcy all the way through to the familiar yet fresh ending, Hanks discovers places to go within Captain Phillips that will leave you in absolute awe.
Then, there's newcomer Barkhad Abdi, a Somali with no previous acting experience who beautifully captures both the desperate menace and the thoughtful humanity of a young man who, as Phillips observes, is likely intelligent enough to work in nearly any field in a country where such opportunities would exist.
Somalia is not such a country.
While I wouldn't exactly call Captain Phillips a sympathetic film towards the Somalians, it also refuses to demonize them and in so making that choice adds a richness of natural humanity and a common, truly common, bridge between Phillips and Muse. In violence prevention, one of the fundamental teachings is that perpetrators of violence aren't necessarily "evil" and don't necessarily "look" evil. They are human beings who can, under the right or wrong circumstances, make choices that seem evil.
Henry Jackman's original score is appropriately dramatic and enhances the film rather than dominates it while Barry Ackroyd's lensing adds the hand-held jittery quality that is so often present in Greengrass's films but does so in a way that makes the action sequences feel more authentic and even participatory in a rather unnerving way. Refreshingly, he manages to capture Hanks in such a way that it doesn't showboat the act but does patiently follow him.
Along with Gravity, Captain Phillips is proof positive that awards season has arrived with multiple Oscar nominations pretty much a sure bet for what is easily one of the year's absolutely best adult dramas.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic