Tom Hanks for the (Much Needed) Save in 'Captain Phillips'

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.

Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Rated: R
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-10-11 (General release)

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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