Back in 2006, I listed United 93, Paul Greengrass’s captivating look at the events of 9/11, as my number one film of the year. The way in which Greengrass genuinely conveyed the emotion, the claustrophobia, the intensity and the fear of those several heart-pounding and incredible hours was nothing short of mesmerizing (and he did so with mostly unknown and non-actors only five years after the events). With Captain Phillips, Greengrass once again takes on a very recent true event and creates an emotionally compelling film. The only difference this time is that he had a little help with the likes of Tom Hanks as the title character.
Hanks brings a perfect everyman quality to the role of Richard Phillips, the Captain of the Maersk Alabama who must hide his fears and nervous reservations to do what he can to keep his crew safe from a band of Somali pirates. Every choice Hanks makes in developing this character is right on point, from the way he reacts to being shot at, to the quick-on-his-feet decisions he is forced to make to protect himself and his crew. The way he portrays such smooth calm under extraordinary circumstances (which in turn helps keep his captors calm enough to think logically about the situation) isn’t only inspirational, but it embodies the strength of a true leader who deserves the recognition of his title. On a deeper level, everything is so controlled, yet so free and unafraid, that the complexity of what’s under the mask is gripping in its fearless realism.
But after two Oscars and over two decades of stellar performances, I’ve come to expect nothing less from Tom Hanks. Where Greengrass makes his most daring decision is in casting completely unknown and untrained Somali actors to portray the pirates, all of whom do a terrific and believable job as the men looking to make a huge payday off of hijacking an American cargo freighter traveling alone (and without protection) through notoriously dangerous waters. To make the film work, Greengrass had to make us believe that these guys weren’t just caricatures, but real people with problems, fears and desires all their own. Choosing to cast these men was a brave decision that pays off in their ability to play off Hanks with a great deal of depth and meaning. With every push Hanks gives them, they shove right back with fierce tenacity. (I can’t say the same for the rest of the cast, some of whom feel out of place and reserved.)
I remember hearing about and watching some of the events that unfolded on television back in 2009 regarding the failed hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, so just as with United 93, to already know how it will turn out can be a detriment if done for spectacle rather than the depth of emotion that goes along with it. Greengrass has proven that he can take a well-known story and still make it feel fresh and new, which helps him to create a tense ride through both the halls of the ship and the escape boat that Phillips and his captors eventually end up in for several hours. When the Navy Seals finally arrive to help end the situation, you’ve become so invested in Phillips and his bravery that you’ve become lost in the story and feel like you are right there with him, in the next seat, waiting breathlessly for someone—anyone—to help.
How much of the story is actually true to fact and how much is embellished for narrative reasons (as is always the case) is actually a moot point here. It really doesn’t matter if Phillips was as calm or as daring as he is portrayed in the film, as the point is to take a harrowing true story and make it a compelling piece of cinema, which Greengrass delivers with near flawless ingenuity. Even in the third act, as the story languishes in a bit of repetition (which slows the film down a bit from the tight, streamlined pace of the first two acts), it still holds us to the edge of our seats as we wait to see how it will all turn out, giving us a sense of how it may have really felt to be inside the boat for as long as they were.
It’s extremely hard to create such a realistically riveting magic from a true-life event (especially when it’s so close in date to the actual events that took place, as DreamWorks will attempt to prove next week with The Fifth Estate, their look at the Julian Assange/Wikileaks events from a few years ago), so when it’s done well, it’s hard not to acknowledge it. Captain Phillips has just the right touch of energy, intrigue and nervous tension that Greengrass may just have another number one to add to my list.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Escape Plan, Carrie and The Fifth Estate. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.