For the most part of my life I have resisted Tom Hanks as an actor. I am not a fan of either of his Oscar-winning performances in Philadelphia and (especially) Forrest Gump. With time, I found the nuances of his work in Cast Away and discovered his earlier comedic work in Big and A League of Their Own. I’ve been slowly warming up to Hanks as an actor and the culmination of that growing appreciation seems to be his downright amazing performance in Captain Phillips. I would dare to say this is his very best performance and I’m not the only one saying that. In this movie, Hanks yet again plays an everyman trapped in a difficult situation. Captain Rich Phillips is piloting a commercial ship from Yemen to Mombasa when he is boarded by a band of Somali pirates. Throughout the film, Hanks does his usual, but immensely effective work of injecting personality and familiar charisma to a relatively shallow character (not that the film needs the character to be deeper, as a matter of fact, it’s probably a better movie for it). But it’s in the final moments of the story that Hanks shows one of the best single pieces of acting I’ve seen this year. It’s something we haven’t seen him do before in a scene that makes the film come together much better than I was expecting. The moment is so effective not only because we’re seeing such a big star as Hanks delve in an unprecedented level of vulnerability, but because he does it so flawlessly.
Hanks is by far my favorite part of the film, but the movie is not as much a showcase for his acting as it might seem from the promotional materials (or what I’ve just written). Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) and screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) are interested in two protagonists. Our pirate leader is Muse, an incredibly skinny and pragmatic man. He is played by Barkhad Abdi, who downplays his lines in a way that works great with Greengrass’s docudrama style. He is also as much a lead in the film as Hanks. We don’t know all that much about the character’s lives beyond their roughest motivations. Captain Phillips’s is his family, Muse’s is his boss’ violent demands. The careful interaction between these two is the centerpiece of the film. It’s a survival story for both characters, as they keep trying to play each other in order to keep their lives. The two performances are essential for the movie to work, giving human energy to cool and methodic filmmaking. The result is the tensest thriller of the year.
However, similarly to the recently reviewed Gravity, the people behind Captain Phillips are not content with making an effective thriller. What Greengrass and Ray are really trying to tell is the story of two victims. One is the kidnapped captain, the other one is the man who is driven to piracy. This kind of approach is a tricky one to work with. Movies like Blood Diamond have failed miserably at it, feeling like condescending products of liberal guilt. There are a few lines in Captain Phillips, mostly spoken by Muse, that spell out the theme a little too bluntly, but unlike Gravity which used full scenes of terrible dialogue to make its theme clear, Captain Phillips only uses a couple lines and lets the visuals be the real punch to its theme. The most notable image of the movie comes once Phillips is being held captive in a lifeboat by the pirates. The U.S. navy is called into action. Three gigantic armored ships surround the little lifeboat, and still, there is little to nothing to be done. No matter how mighty the power, there’s no quick solution to this problem. The navy can destroy the lifeboat, blow those four pirates to pieces, but it can’t prevent thousands of men, still in Somalia, from having to turn to piracy.
I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that Tom Hanks survives the kidnapping (the movie is based on the real Captain Phillips’s memoir), but even if he is still alive, I consider this to be a very pessimistic film. There is a deep bleakness to Captain Phillips, and the notion that nobody wins in this kind of situation. The lives of the pirates who rob these ships won’t get better, neither will the possibilities for future cargo ships. There is a big question in the back of this great thriller and it is driven home with what ultimately happens to Muse and that last scene we get from Captain Phillips: An overwhelming scene that reflects the movie’s view on these problems.