[10 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There are those in the film critic biz who enjoy discrediting popular actors. Name someone who is currently sitting in the social or cultural limelight and you’re destined to find a pundit who hates their work, their approach, or the very sight of them on a movie poster. For these people, the name or known quantity provides a kind of analytic kryptonite—this performer could be brilliant, but in the eyes of those who instantly dismiss them, they are doing themselves and the reading (blogging, vlogging, etc.) public a grand service. One of the stars who frequently finds himself the butt of such flippant remarks is Tom Hanks. A decidedly comic actor before taking on more serious roles, he’s won two Oscars and yet there are those who believe both (Philadelphia and Forrest Gump) where the result of Hollywood politics (the former) and clueless Academy voters (the latter).
Yet it goes without saying that Hanks has made a “splash” as part of the popular film going experience, and something like Captain Phillips is a clear expression why. For the majority of its running time, director Paul Greengrass is “the star”, celebrating his by now beyond sell date shaky-cam action dynamic to more or less amplify a relatively straightforward story. Sure, he did the same thing with United 93, but there’s an emotional and patriot investment within that post-9/11 effort that this story of Somali pirates and the stalwart ship’s captain they chose to mess with fails to achieve. Hanks plays Richard Phillips, a married man who often frets over the places his job takes him. This time, it’s in the dangerous waters off Somali, an area plagued by make-shift criminals who are really nothing more than desperate thugs working for powerful crime warlords.
Hoping to impress those who provide his meager pay, lowly wannabe Muse (Barkhad Abdi) defies his overseers and take on the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama. With just three other associates, some automatic weapons, and a fast boat, they manage to board the vessel and take Phillips and his commanding crew hostage. Everyone else hides in the engine room while the captain tries to convince the hijackers that they shouldn’t take on the U.S. government. Sure enough, the group decides to depart, but takes Phillips along as collateral. The ship’s motorized lifeboat is very slow, and eventually, the Navy catches up with our villains. Over the next few hours, some intense negotiations begin. The Somalis want millions in exchange for Phillips’ life. The captain, on the other hand, just wants his ordeal to be over.
At the beginning of The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone and his collection of once-were action heroes take on a band of bloodthirsty pirates similar to the ones offered up here. After a few catchphrase-worthy sentences about the situation, the above the title gang draws their big guns (and other weapons) and puts these desperate men out of their misery. In some ways, Greengrass could have used something akin to said films broad, bloody spectacle. Captain Phillips is so insular, so locked in the littleness of its narrative, that it never achieves the kind of heartbreak epiphany of the filmmaker’s other fact based effort. Phillips is shrewd and quite capable of dealing with the situation. All suspense is slowly drained out of the experience as we watch the pirates fall for the man’s manipulations again and again.
Indeed, as thrills go, Captain Phillips is relatively lax. We know there will be a hijacking, an eventual disembarking to a rescue craft, and a stand-off with the might of the US military. So it’s the details we are interested in, the minutia that would make us care more deeply about either side of the situation. We do get a bit of that at the beginning, when Muse and the other Somalis struggle for recognition by those who work for the bosses. There’s also a few more hints when Phillips talks to his captors about their hatred of America (and they reveal an actual desire to live there). But the script by Billy Ray never develops beyond its single narrative line. As fact-based recreations go, Captain Phillips is so by the book that you might as well read the source material by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty.
So, what saves it? If the film is so pedestrian and uninvolving, simplistic in its subtexts and near nauseating in its jittery visual panache, why would anyone want to see it? Well, aside for those who are suckers for a true life story, Hanks and the harrowing last ten minutes is the answer. It’s no spoiler to suggest that Captain Phillips survives this ordeal. He was all over the media at the time and is being trotted out now to show solidarity for the people who make such sacrifices to keep freight flowing around the world. It’s HOW he survives that is the most gut wrenching, Hanks retreating to a place so dark and primal that it’s shocking in its severity. If the man won Oscars for his other work, this brief display of confused hopelessness deserves the same. It surpasses almost anything he’s done before.
For many in the audience, this will be enough. The main story will be engaging and the ending will pull it all together with tears and cheers. But Captain Phillips should have been more than a precise recreation of events. Greengrass has a lot to work with here, including the amazing physicality within actor Barkhad Abdi which just begs to be exploited. He is so thin, and yet so mesmerizing and menacing that he demands a villain moment that he really never gets. Instead, others in his crew outshine him in the wide-eyed anger department. In fact, one could easy imagine someone else behind the lens, someone less restricted by his desire to drop the audience into the middle of every melee without giving them proper perspective on what they should be looking at, and what they should be afraid of. Luckily, Greengrass made one wise decision - he hired Hanks. Captain Phillips may save the day in the movie, but here, the star keeps his own film’s fading fortunes afloat.