Seven years ago, Director Paul Greengrass gave us “United 93.” Greengrass’ vision was bold and pulled no punches, easily making it the best post-9/11 film to date. Everything Greengrass brought to the table in “United 93” is displayed in “Captain Phillips.” This is another intensely shot, authentically edited true story about ordinary people forced to step up during a catastrophe. Is it the masterpiece that “United 93” was? Not quite, but that’s a really tough act to beat.
For all those who didn’t follow the story on the news in 2009 or read “A Captain’s Duty,” here’s the deal. Tom Hanks is Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama. While transporting cargo to Kenya, the ship is hijacked by four Somali pirates. None of the 20 crewmembers are prepared to deal with such a crisis, their only weapons being hoses and knives. This doesn’t stop Phillips from calmly negotiating with the pirates, doing his best to keep the rest of his men out of harm’s way. The pirates ultimately choose to leave with 30,000 dollars in a covered lifeboat, but not without Phillips as a bargaining chip.
The representation of the four pirates is actually very unique for a Hollywood movie. They’re played by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M Ali, all of whom are making their first major acting debuts. “Captain Phillips” avoids the temptation to turn the pirates into calculating Bond villains or Hans Gruber. If anything, they can come off as a little dim. Even if they aren’t well educated or well spoken, though, that doesn’t make them any less threatening. As intimidating as they are, the pirates are never depicted all flat-out savages either. The screenplay by Billy Ray strives to give each man some shred of humanity. That doesn’t make them sympathetic, but it does make them more identifiable.
Like he did in “United 93,” Greengrass mostly casts lesser-known character actors across the board. The film includes some effective performances from the various men portraying Phillips’ crew and the navy officers sent to rescue Phillips. There are two recognizable faces in “Captain Phillips,” though. One is the always-welcome Catherine Keener, who we briefly see as the captain’s wife in the beginning. The other is of course Hanks in the title role.
Speaking of Hanks, what a marvelous, multi-layered performance he delivers here. Some would argue that Hanks has been in a slump the past ten years, excluding his voiceover work. Clearly those people didn’t see him in “Cloud Atlas.” He’s destined to get his first Oscar nomination since “Cast Away” for “Captain Phillips.” Hanks is given the difficult task of playing somebody who for the most part seems collected. But underneath that composed exterior is a desperate man who knows he may never see his family again. This role was tailor-made for the likes of Hanks, who reminds us just what a gifted actor he still is.
(Editor’s Note: Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past seven years, reviewing movies on his website, nickpicksflicks.com.)