Plastering aging movie stars onto cinematic failures, although detrimental for the art form, is unfortunately profitable. All too often, production companies coax actors into participating in would-be catastrophes in search of revenue.
Thankfully, Tom Hank’s latest film resurgence, Captain Phillips, triumphs over surrounding desperados, reaffirming my logic of using the aging actors in high octane thrillers. On the surface Paul Greengrass, known for his trademark skill to utilize hand-held cameras and small budgets to effectively dramatize real-life events, again shattered my optimistic expectations with a brilliantly paced, powerfully acted, retelling of the 2011 Somalian tanker hijacking whose achievement may eventually be grounds for recognition at the Oscars or Academy Awards.
The story revolves around the hijacking of the US Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship delivering humanitarian aid to Mogga Dishu. During the course of their delivery, a group of Somalian pirates, led by Abduwali Muse, approach and capture the moving vessel, leaving the titular character, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), to lead the terrified civilian occupants of the ship to safety. The plot, in essence, revolves around the dynamic and intense relationship held by the occupancy of both ships for the duration of the occupation, and tells its story with fines, holding the audience hostage.
Hank’s harrowing performance, grounded in realism but nonetheless moving, will please any fan of the thriller genre. His natural, reassuring demeanor, with the aid of competent acting and writing, gathers the audience under his wing, constantly forcing us to ask ourselves, “What would I do if I were in his situation?”. Phillip’s strengths lie not in his qualities of a fearless leader but as a ship captain who actually is afraid but refuses to admit it. Emoted nuances communicate an unseen fear that reveals a man who is scared out of his wits but knows that inaction and surrender are sadly paths to the same fate. Phillips displays a personal loyalty to integrity before the arrival of the hijackers, adding meaning and transparency to his later actions.
The realistic cinematography that Greengrass utilizes the jittery, slight-of-hand camcorder style that, dually demonstrated in the Hurt Locker. The combined effort of all the boat crew is depicted through rapidly changing camera vantage points of the crew, captain, and attackers during the boat onset of the capture. Limited on a small cargo ship, the setting feels constricted. The stationary setting is offset by the constant tension and relentlessness of the plot. Fluid changes in leverage between the Somalians and boat crew help drive the film past its traditional limits.
On par with the film’s brilliant pacing is competent and convincing performances on the behalf of the entire cast. The Somalis, who could have easily been portrayed as one-dimensional belligerants, were comprised different personalities who actually interacted with the crew differently. Each of the pirates pursues a similar agenda for individual reasons that occasionally conflict with each other. During the film, one may be surprised by the depth of characterization and individuality given to the antagonists. This depth works through the different interactions and dispositions towards Phillips. Shrewd, tactical, forward-thinking, and above all, patient, Phillip’s character shines as the largest set piece in a sea of interesting personas. Unique personalities devoted to each of the individuals spreads sympathy across all the characters in the story, protagonists and antagonists alike. As the stakes, anxiety, and tension speed towards the shockingly climactic resolution, the film invests the viewer in its characters, only making the denouement the more heart-wrenching and effective.
Very rarely do thrillers of this vein achieve cinematic excellence, but Paul Greengrass’ most recent outing was a sure success. Comfortably packed into a 134 minute running time, the film understands its length, not overstaying its welcome nor leaving the audience with questions. I felt perfectly satisfied with the blindsiding conclusion, characters, pacing, and acting. All the important set pieces were present and accounted for. The only sense of lacking I felt was upon leaving the theatre.
This film will likely appeal to all fans of the thriller genre, under the caveat that this movie requires your full attention, but if you are willing to devote your senses to the screen for two hours, you will be very well rewarded.