Is it possible to take a two-time Oscar winner for granted? I did going into Captain Phillips, which intrigued me more as another docudrama from United 93 director Paul Greengrass than a vehicle for Tom Hanks. Boy was I wrong. Greengrass brings an urgent directorial touch, to be sure, but this is Hanks’ movie.
The picture is based on the 2009 hijacking of an American container ship by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Hanks plays Richard Phillips, the ship’s captain, and the opening section of the movie establishes him as a no-nonsense, fastidious boss. In fact, when the pirates make their first appearance, he happens to be running his crew through a drill for just such an occasion.
Leading the threat is the alarmingly thin yet exceedingly intimidating Muse (played by novice actor Barkhad Abdi). We first see Muse in his coastal village, where armed men suddenly show up in pickups and demand that the village’s fishermen head to sea in search of vulnerable ships. (We later learn these are foot soldiers of a Somali warlord.) Muse hastily arranges a crew and off they go – in such desperation that one young member is even barefoot.
Greengrass brings an urgent directorial touch, to be sure, but this is Hanks’ movie.
With his trademark jostling camera, Greengrass brings a jumpy intensity to the attack itself. But the movie really takes off when Muse and Phillips finally come face to face. It isn’t that Abdi is exceedingly natural; you can see the effort in his performance. Yet the way that he and Hanks warily feel each other out – as characters and, no doubt, as actors – has a crackling tension. They’re essentially playing a mind game that depends on which captain can best muster his men. “Everything is going to be OK,” Muse repeatedly says in his broken English, cajoling Phillips, emboldening his men and trying to convince himself. Phillips, meanwhile, is at turns cooperative and passive aggressive. The movie becomes a riveting, interpersonal battle for command.
Eventually, Captain Phillips opens up to include an array of captains, all of whom are jostling for positions of ultimate authority over the situation. A Navy warship gets involved, with its own by-the-book commander (Yul Vazquez), who is then superseded by a team of SEALs and their leader (Max Martini). As the power structure expands around Muse and his three fellow pirates, something like sympathy almost arises for them, despite their acts of terror.
As Phillips, Hanks will have none of that, however. One of his powerhouse moments comes when he looks Muse in the eye and tells him: “You’re not just a fisherman.” (Earlier, Muse had claimed the overfishing of Somali waters had left him no choice but to kidnap.) Surely the geopolitics behind this incident would make for a fascinating film, but Captain Phillips is mostly concerned about the dynamic between these two men.
It isn’t until Phillips sees that Muse is losing control over his men that Phillips ultimately breaks down. As a captain, he knows that when the chain of command falls apart, all is lost. When Phillips loses his own composure (I won’t detail how), the movie becomes something special. At first I was thrown by his decisions, but that’s only because I’ve become so accustomed to the way heroes usually act in Hollywood action pictures. Captain Phillips lets its central character’s vulnerability live and breathe, and Hanks throws himself so completely into the moment that it’s overwhelming to watch. He gives a tour de force depiction of a man in shock that left me feeling something of the same.