Looking for thrills and maybe a few chills during this barren October, devoid of any sort of horror to fill that void? Searching for some excitement, mixed with some incredibly tense drama? Ready to see the best work Tom Hanks, who has two Academy Awards for Best Actor on his resume, has ever committed to the big screen? Then look no further than CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, which is where they’re all at and then some. Based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, captain of a merchant ship taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009, director Paul Greengrass has really pieced together one heart-pounding, pulse-racing, palm-sweating ride that will have you caught up in the moment, even if you think you have some basic understanding of what transpired on the Maersk Alabama. There’s more than enough intensity pumped into CAPTAIN PHILLIPS to keep you on edge throughout the film, with Greengrass building each scene carefully and methodically to bring about a nervous and uncomfortable response from you on such a consistent basis. You are essentially left with no choice but to fear for each member of the crew on the ship as they face the looming danger of four men with loaded weapons, an insatiable hunger for loot and nothing to lose, but none more than that of the captain (Hanks), who even in his attempts to be clever and smooth is still staring down the barrel of a gun pointed at him at all times. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS extends beyond something you watch; it’s something you absolutely feel, and, for that, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS easily ranks as one of the better films I’ve seen this year.
Seeming to follow his own words of wisdom about his son – “Gotta be strong to survive out there” – Captain Phillips puts up quite a fight as the head of the crew of the Alabama when on their cargo route to Kenya the ship is being aggressively pursued by two blips on the radar. Those blips are two approaching skiffs filled with armed men looking for a rich score. Using evasive measures and all the on-ship protocols they have at their disposal to deflect any piracy attempts, Captain Phillips is able to lead his ship out of harm’s way for now… but when you’re dealing with people so focused on accomplishing what they set out to do, swatting them in their initial attempt is a surefire recipe to bring them back for another concentrated effort for success.
Barkhad Abdi co-stars as Muse, the leader of this band of pirates, who takes his crew of three others on this die-hard mission to commandeer, leaving behind the other boat that may be filled with a bit more sense. But Abdi isn’t playing your typical mustache-twirling villain here, hamming it up against the hero to make for an easily satisfying battle between good and evil. What Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray have miraculously managed to do is create a bad guy who is nothing more than a victim of circumstance. In Somalia, there isn’t much choice for him when it comes to his path in life. There are fishermen, and then there are pirates… and I’m sure you can guess which one pays better for a young man to help provide for his family. This is a far departure from the American dream where you can be anything you want to be, and while that may not pull sympathy for you concerning Muse’s lot in life, it at least paints him as a justified villain whose plight you can identify with and recognize.
The crew of the Alabama manage to throw every trick in the book they have at the pirates who manage to make it on-board after an incredible chase sequence on the high seas, and it’s in these moments when Greengrass really works his magic. With the crew in hiding on the ship, they must move as secretly and discretely as they can to make the pirates’ time on the ship as difficult and short-lived as possible, constantly putting themselves at risk for being located and the life of their captain on the line for being credibly dishonest about their whereabouts. Greengrass slowly creeps through each of these scenes, using the silence of each location to ramp up your anxiety, a fantastic by-product of such gripping tension, all the while using the camera to keep you antsy, showing crew members just out of sight of those looking for them, as if the tiniest shift in glance or movement would give them away and blow their cover. This is an action thriller that knows the blueprint of what it’s supposed to do, and Greengrass pulls it off with excellence.
Let me get to Hanks now, because, without him being such a likable and brave leader, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS may not have worked as well as it does. But where Hanks is truly important is in being the voice of reason against the more impulsive and emotional decisions being made by Abdi’s Muse. There’s a rapport between them that dictates no one should get hurt during this hostage crisis, that it’s all about business, but Hanks provides the reminder for Abdi that as things push deeper, the chances for victory grow slimmer for Muse and his men… especially when the United States Navy becomes involved. As we all know, that’s not a group that likes to lose, particularly to four armed men making threats against one of those they’ve sworn to protect. And when you factor in the whole policy of not negotiating with what basically amounts to terrorists here… how can things possibly end well for those with their fingers on the trigger? But as we see in these interactions between Hanks and Abdi, what choice do the Somalis have?
As solid as Hanks is throughout the film, it’s in the last 10 minutes or so in the film that he takes things to a whole different level than anything we’ve seen from him before, and, for that matter, anything we’ve seen in a film before. It’s not often we get to see the aftermath of a situation like this, with films of this nature typically cutting off after some sort of heroic rescue or necessary shootout. However, Greengrass pushes things further, and what we get to witness is one of the rawest moments I’ve ever seen from both a character and an actor. It is true emotion being displayed on the screen, which left me choked up beyond belief, seeing what felt like the most honest and accurate depiction of what someone would be going through after surviving such an ordeal. All of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is superb, but those last 10 minutes… that’s where the films transcends to something great and once again shows how amazing Tom Hanks can be in any given film. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a fantastic film that seems to do everything right, reaping the benefits of Hanks, Greengrass and the special find of Abdi in providing you with a top-notch thriller. This is one you definitely want to make it a point to see, as the nerve-racking experience it puts you through is well worth it.