Monday, October 14, 2013
Captain Phillips (***)
Directed by Paul Greengrass
It's hard to think of a movie star like Tom Hanks - someone who has been a movie star for such a sustained, lucrative period of time - and think that he will be able to show us something new. But that's exactly what happens in Captain Phillips. It's hard to remember the last time Hanks was able to tear into a role the way he does here. Do we have to go all the way back to 2001's Cast Away? If Phillips is set to spark a new chapter in this historically popular star's career, it does so with a performance so ingrained into the Hanks reputation that it feels like something he's done a million times. But it isn't. This is a film less interested in the rights and wrongs of a dangerous situation than we might think, but its placement of Hanks, right in the middle, gives the movie an undeniable moral center. Does Hanks abuse that responsibility? No, he just uses it to give one of the best performances of his career.
This is the latest film from Paul Greengrass, a filmmaker who has spent the last decade balancing between biting historical fiction (Bloody Sunday, United 93) and Matt Damon-led, politically-slanted action films (Bourne Supremacy, Bourne Ultimatum and Green Zone). Captain Phillips falls a bit between the two tonally, albeit with a very different movie star. Greengrass is a former journalist, and it shows in how he's chosen to document real life events in his films. Authenticity is important to him; he knows that the words "based on a true story" gives him a certain responsibility that he takes very seriously. At least, he takes it more seriously than Lee Daniels did with The Butler. His version of the events of 9/11 in United 93 were so deliberate and specific, he was able to rise above the criticism made about making a 9/11 movie only two years after the events had passed (I, for one, found United 93 to be an overwhelmingly powerful movie and terrifically made, but I still debate the timing of when it was produced and released).
This time around, Greengrass points his lens toward Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, a ship carrying over 17,000 metric tons of cargo. The crew and its captain, traveling around the horn of Africa, are aware of the dangers within these international waters, with pirate attacks happening to various freighters weekly. Phillips, specifically, is incredibly intuitive to incoming danger, interrupting coffee breaks to run safety drills and complaining about unlocked hatches. For him, it's more like a matter of when, not if. Yet, when the blip finally does appear on his radar, there is an inkling of fear. His crew, so annoyed by his by-the-books discipline earlier, become suddenly fond of leadership skills in the face of danger. As the pirates come dangerously close, finally latching their ladder to the ship's edge, Phillips reminds all of the ship's crew, which is hiding deep within the bottom of the engine room, that they know the ship and these pirates do not.
When the pirates finally do get aboard, they face off with Phillips who does his best to keep the location of his crew concealed. The leader of the pirates is a rail thin man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a fierce bug-eyed personality who takes to calling Phillips "Irish". Back in Muse's village, they are threatened with violence if they are not able to get the money and resources needed to provide the village with more Khat root, a chewing drug native to the area which they are all addicted to. Muse has fought his way to the top of his own crew, desperate to prove his superiors wrong. In his part of Somalia, you can only survive with brute force, and he hopes to be the most brutal of them all. So, when he and his three men discover that the ship that they boarded is American, they all jump for joy. Phillips tells them that there is $30,000 in the ship's safe and they are welcome to it. But Muse knows how much more valuable the people and items on the ship are, and he wants more.
What is most astonishing about Greengrass' version of the events is how much time he's willing to devote to Muse and his fellow pirates. We see Muse in his village, picking his crew and scrapping with his Elders. Somalia is a nation sapped of most of its resources, its residents living in a constant state of warfare, men standing on the outside of villages holding AK-47s and wearing sandals. Not only does Greengrass tightrope the sociopolitical issues of making a modern movie where thick-accented black men attack a ship of mostly American white men with automatic weapons, but he even dares to give a little empathy (maybe even sympathy?) to the pirates' plight. As Muse, Barkhad Abdi is terrific. Muse is a smart man, with the ability to kill but knowing that Phillips is only worth anything if he is kept alive. When he first tells Phillips that he is the ship's new captain, it's almost comical. By the end of the film, it actually makes sense.
In a ploy to get the pirates off the boat, Phillips goes with them onto a lifeboat, only to be kidnapped. Once the four pirates and Phillips leave the Maersk Alabama in the lifeboat, it's almost like a second film, and this one is even more intense and especially more claustrophobic. A couple of the pirates, including Muse, are injured and as Navy ships begin to respond to the distress call, Muse's desperate hopes for a successful ransom exchange begin to look more and more unlikely. It's an incredibly stressful last hour of the movie, as we can see U.S.S. Maritime officials being pressured by the Navy to save Phillips before the lifeboat reaches Somalia. All the while, Phillips does his best to convince Muse and his men that there plan is dead. That they might as well give up. That the Navy would rather have them all drown in the lifeboat then let him win. But Muse, aware of the fate that awaits him back home knows that he can't give up.
What Tom Hanks does in this movie is spectacular, and how Greengrass contrasts our anxieties with Hanks' star power is expertly done. Hanks has spent so much time being our generation's Jimmy Stewart that people began to think that there was nothing else he could. But people also forget that Stewart's career took a decided shift at the age of fifty when he began exploring darker material in Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder. Not that Captain Phillips explores particularly darker material than Hanks is used to, but for the first time since 2003's Catch Me If You Can Hanks obsessively contributes to a role with the kind of ferocity that made him such a wonderful personality to begin with. Hanks' measured discipline and craftiness as Phillips is excellent throughout, but its his final two scenes in Phillips that really shine. They're both of the showcase, Oscar clip-y variety, but great stars know how to knock those kinds of scenes out of the park so you're not even thinking about it. This is the kind of movie star acting you're getting here.
Captain Phillips did seem to be a bit long at times. Greengrass' stubborn obsession with the mundane, procedural aspects of these events (some may remember just how long we had to spend with Air Traffic Control in United 93) occasionally wears a bit thin here. But that is the character of the movie and one that really propels its aching suspense. It even has the gaul to introduce Catherine Keener as Phillips' wife Andrea in the movie's opening minutes, and then never show her again. Because it doesn't have to. The film's view of the events is so sterile and objective, avoiding the obvious black and white issues. Much like Zero Dark Thirty, this movie calls into question the American chest-beating that goes on behind the capturing, and often times executing, of perpetrators against America. One of the greatest bits from comedian Louis CK is how he laughs at how American parents get the chance to choose whether or not to expose their children to the evils of war and violence. As Captain Phillips shows, and CK's joke punchlines, there are a lot of places where families don't have that luxury.