Written by Matt Oakes
Published: 11 October 2013
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey
Biography, Crime, Drama
"There's gotta be something more than fishing or kidnapping people," Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) pleads to his captors. "Maybe in America," Somali pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) retorts musingly, "maybe in America." Paul Greengrass's harrowing dramatization of Captain Phillip's 2009 kidnapping is filled with cultural misunderstandings of this nature. Vermont native Phillips fails to understand the true scope of these 21st century Somali pirates' desperation just as Muse and his ragtag gang of automatic weapon-clutching goons can't grasp how ridiculous their uncompromising request for a ten million dollar bounty is. On the surface, Captain Phillips may be a nail-biting tension match on par with Greengrass's Bourne films but these surging politic undercurrents nipping at the frayed seams of a lopsided global economy takes the film to the next level of austere greatness.
As Phillips departs home on a socked in Vermont morning, he and wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) make small talk. Opposite to expectations, their relationship has never quite acclimated to Phillip's globetrotting work. His departure is a challenge each and every time. But besides the emotional stress that comes bundled with physical distance from his family that rolls around like clockwork, there looms a far greater threat to Phillips: pirates.
Not swashbuckling, rum-chugging, sword-swinging Captain Jack Sparrows that Hollywood has so successfully romaticized but rather pirates born and bred of desperation. There are no "pirate's life for me" sing-a-longs, no colorful parrots, plank to walk, or skull-and-bones flags, just a ragged sense of urgent necessity fueled by a "do or die" philosophy. Greengrass scrubs any dated concepts of glamor with a lump-throated scene of "woe-is-them" exposure. Pirating is a business and like all businesses, it can only handle so many employees. In this third world enterprise, tattered Somalians are literally begging to join the bandit crew. As easy as it is to paint them as such, they are not the scum of the earth; they're just the products of a living, breathing dumping ground, scrounging for their piece of the pie.
However you may despise the cold-eyed Muse and his radical tactics at times, there is never an instance where you don't understand him. This finely tuned balance, achieved through tactful story telling and a deeply humanistic element, is the work of a master. Onward and upward from the utterly fantastic and heart-wrenching United 93, Greengrass has learned even more self-discipline in the past decade. With Captain Phillips, he's managed to secure a better handle on blending tension, drama, and the cold hard facts. For the wealth of real-life drama originating from the Maersk Alabama kidnapping, Greengrass has harnessed the best elements, like a weathered jeweler cutting down a diamond, and crafted a truly moving story.
Front and center, Hanks puts in one of the finest performances of his career. For all of his great former roles, there has always been a pinch of something disingenuous. Here there's no shoddy accent cluttering things, no slips into hammy flourishes, no reliance on melodrama to catalyze the impact of his delivery. This is 100 percent raw and real. As Phillips, Hanks delivers a master class in acting, easily revealing his most mature and finely adjusted performance, perhaps ever.
While Captain Phillips falls in a season exploring all brands of survival drama (Gravity, All is Lost), it carves its own niche and is able to get our blood boiling in its own kind of way. While Gravity explored our human fear of claustrophobia and solitude, Phillips overturns the darkest corner of human nature: the fight-or-flight survival instinct within us. Any creature with its back against the wall will battle tooth and nail for its own life, and this is the catch 22 of the Somali circumstance. They believe that they must put their lives in danger ransacking these cargo ships in order to survive, even if that means holding up vessels stocked with emergency aid for those living in Africa. They are literally Robin Hood-ing their own people under the thin veil of collective-interest while they are literally taking food from the mouths of their fellow emaciated comrade.
And while this crew may not be dying in the moment, they are literally rotting away as a result of abject poverty. Their only perceived solution is this kidnapping business - as fishing just won't cut it in the days of cargo barges constantly scaring off schools of potential dollars. As our entrance to this "other side of the world" mindset, Muse is more than a caricature. He's hardly more than a sack of bones but he's downright terrifying at times, reminding us of a once-bullied school child, now clinging to notions of American grandeur that could only be the stuff of dreams. Even his nickname "Skinny" (a tag he despises) fingers poverty and false iconography as the true enemy.
The beating heart of Captain Phillips is the revolution of these two Captains around one another as they fight for their survival only as they best see fit. They both lie to each other, they both make tragic mistakes, they both underestimate each other's ceaseless zeal but, in the end, they want the same thing and this is the true irony. Both Phillips and Muse covet the American dream. To Phillips, this means responsibility, family, and job security - basically, the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". He's not asking for much, just what he's been promised his whole life.
Muse essentially wants the same thing; he just doesn't know how to go about it. Even more damning, he fails to understand that not every American is a millionaire nor can he really comprehend the value of the American dollar. Just as Phillips can't quite grasp the grim lack of options presented to these sea-bound desperadoes, Muse can't help but apply a paradise template to his Americano notions. Their inherent misinterpretation of what each other stands for creates a deliciously polarized character swirl that pulls the tension as taut as a guitar string.
Humanizing his villain is a bold step, especially since we're rooting against him for so much of the picture, but it's a skill that Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray boldly execute. It's rare to see an antagonist so despicable and yet so secretly tender. Using the autobiography from the real Richard Phillips as a map, Ray has crafted a believable and yet supercharged hijacking film far and away better than the much celebrated but truly lacking Denmark film A Hijacking.
Greengrass has made a hero story that we don't quite know how to feel about. Our alliances are set, our convictions are airtight, but there's a sneaking feeling of something amiss in an American victory that we just can't put our finger on. He's not piling on the white guilt but maybe that's the genesis of the moral frustration, the straw-on-camel tipping point of Western privilege. The one we didn't see coming.
As a biopic, it's uncompromising and doggedly raw. As a thriller, it defines "being on pins and needles". As a showcase for Tom Hanks, it serves as a major highlight for his long and illustrious career. It is, without a doubt, a spectacular achievement.
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