Captain Phillips is being presented as a Tom Hanks movie. It’s actually a Paul Greengrass film. Greengrass, perhaps best known as the director of the last two Bourne movies, ought to be best known for United 93, a near-brilliant retelling of the 9/11 story of the highjacked plane that landed in Shanksville, PA.
As good as United 93 was, Captain Phillips is even better. Greengrass has a cool, quick, and almost detached approach to the action in his films that helps keep them real and moving along. He never dawdles, and he knows how to cut action scenes almost better than anyone (or has one of the best editors around). As most of us know, the film tells the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who captained a US-flagged cargo ship that was the first highjacked by pirates in 200 years.
Greengrass’s no-nonsense approach doesn’t work well in the opening sequence, which shows Phillips (Hanks) being taken to the airport by his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener, wasted in the role while still being good in nearly everything she appears in). Since Greengrass has a keep ‘em movin’ approach, we really don’t get to enjoy the relationship between the two, and can merely infer that they love each other and that Phillips is a normal person with a real family. This is one time that he could have dwelt on a few things, taken his time, enjoyed the moment a bit.
But once we get on the ship, Greengrass plays to his strengths. His camera is nearly always moving, documentary-style, and he creates an original blend of the rehearsed and the discovered. For the rest of the film, it’s a near-perfect fit. The man always seems to know where to put his camera for maximum tension, and the camera seems another character at times, caught in the action as much as the captain and crew.
Hanks is Hanks, and then some. I appreciate that he is Mr. America when it comes to movies, much like James Stewart was in the middle of the previous century. I show Road to Perdition as the first film in my college class, and a key part of that film’s success is Mr. Nice Guy playing a hired killer. We as Americans love the guy, and that works almost to a fault here. His persona often threatens to be bigger than his ability to be the character, but you can’t argue with his likability and the associated loyalty and feeling we bring to his character—and in this case, what his character goes through. Happily, Hanks transcends his persona more and more as the film progresses, and he reaches his personal zenith in the last scenes, which show a subtlety and acting depth I didn’t know he possessed. He’ll certainly be nominated for an Oscar, and may well win it, especially with the memory of that last scene being fresh in one’s mind as they leave the theater.
Side note: Hanks never quite nails the New England accent, and puts more energy into the accent than it should have. As well known as the Boston/New England accent is to Americans it’s still one of the greatest challenges of an actor to make is sound second-nature.
Every bit as good as Hanks is Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the Somali pirates. This is apparently his first film, and he is somewhere between right on the money and amazing. He’s quite the find, and part of the awe of the performance is the knowledge that this is his first time in front of the camera. He’s a match for Hanks in every scene, and adds incredible authenticity to the scene because of his look (he is Somali by background). My only thought is that such a singular presence may not have much of a future in films—How would one cast him beyond this film?—no matter how talented he obviously is. Watching the development of his character from hungry and eager in the opening scenes to a beaten and unraveling state while working hard to maintain a pretense of staying strong—both actor and director deserve praise.
One often-ignored aspect of filmmaking is casting, and this is another example of why this ought to be an awards category. Beyond Hanks, Keener and Abdi, the casting is believable, with faces, attitudes and postures that add to the richness of the film. From the crew—all real-looking and acting—to the Somalis on land and sea to the naval officers all working to rescue Phillips—the attention paid to casting even the smallest parts is something to be greatly admired.
Lastly, the film makes the point that everyone here is acting out of their beliefs and their environments, while still not giving a pass to the violence and treachery of the pirates. That’s a tough and narrow road to walk down, and the film succeeds in presenting both sides without trying to equate the two.
This is an intense ride, and the slowing down of a portion in the middle is a well-needed break that gets one ready for the intensity of the last quarter of the film. Greengrass is the thinking man’s action director, and his urgent, compelling editing and camerawork (along with the driving soundtrack) work together to create a compelling experience and to give us one of the best films of the year so far.