Starring: Tom Hanks, Bakhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
Directed by: Paul Greengrass (“United 93”)
Written by: Billy Ray (“State of Play”)
Not so much “Bourne” as it is a real-world drama like his restrained albeit powerful 2006 masterpiece “United 93,” director Paul Greengrass takes the same kind of reflective approach to “Captain Phillips,” the true story of a merchant mariner who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in April 2009. With Greengrass at the helm and two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks on board as Phillips, “Captain” is one of this year’s most well-crafted and convincing films and one that chronicles the bravery of the men who were able to end an epic standoff in a very impressive way.
Based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Phillips and Stephan Talty, “Captain Phillips” introduces us to its title character Richard Phillips, a veteran cargo ship captain whose life out at sea has become one that he and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) have grown accustom to. When Capt. Phillips arrives to the port for his next trip to Kenya and tells Andrea that he will “call [her] when [he] gets there,” it’s reminiscent of the words he tells Helen Hunt in “Cast Away” (“I’ll be right back!”) right before boarding a FedEx plane that crashes in the South Pacific. Things don’t turn out very well in either case.
When four money-hungry Somali pirates (led by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi as pirate leader Muse) find a way to take over the ship, Capt. Phillips is put in a situation no amount of pirate emergency drills could prepare him for. With most of his crew hiding in the lower decks, he is able to handle the aggressive Somalians who are adamant about making millions off their hijack. When the pirates’ plans don’t pan out, Capt. Phillips finds himself negotiating with the men to take the $30,000 inside the safe and leave peacefully on the ship’s lifeboat. But when the captain is forced onto the vessel himself and plans are made to use him as ransom, it’s up to the Navy SEALS to step in and take command of an extremely dangerous and seemingly unmanageable situation.
No stranger to being trapped or deserted in some regard (see the aforementioned “Cast Away,” his role as astronaut Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13” and to a more fantastical effect his role in “Big”), Hanks is simply masterful as Capt. Phillips. It’s easily his best lead performance since his last Oscar nomination in 2001’s “Cast Away” and one that should garner him the sixth nomination of his career. On deck with his crew and later with the pirates, Hanks emits a dominant demeanor despite knowing he could die at any second. His acting only gets better as the film continues onto the lifeboat where Hanks and Abdi both attempt to make the best case out of a worst-case scenario. They’re interaction is beyond intense as the lifeboat speeds through the choppy waters of the Somalian Gulf with U.S. military surrounding them.
While the film could’ve used a bit more emotional heft in portraying the captain as a family man, Greengrass keeps the blood boiling at such high levels. It’s no surprise he can do this well, especially with the work he has done with his more action-packed films like the “Bourne” films. Transferring that kind of gripping narrative into something with far fewer guns and hand-to-hand combat is a challenge, but he succeeds impressively. And if you think the final mission in last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty” was something to ooh and aah about, the last half hour of “Captain Phillips” rivals it shot for shot. It might even make you want to get to the nearest Navy recruit station as soon as possible. Hooyah!