Saturday night, I watched Gravity in theaters for the second time, desperate to show my wife how intense the early Oscar favorite was in IMAX 3D. Sunday night, we were out again for Captain Phillips, a movie that needed no such giant screen or an extra dimension to fray my nerves. Between those two, I’m thoroughly exhausted. If I go see Machete Kills tonight, it will probably feel like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 by comparison.
Captain Phillips is a perfect storm of an incredible true story, solid direction and a powerful performance from one of the country’s most beloved actors. Tom Hanks is the titular Phillips, an American cargo ship captain tasked with transporting goods through the dangerous waters outside Somalia, where pirates are known to lurk.
Opposite Phillips is pirate lieutenant Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), tasked by a Somali warlord with bringing in a fresh ship which can net millions in cargo. But Muse and his villagers get scarce little of the profits, even after risking so much.
Phillips is a safety-nut to a fault, even before the pirate invasion. He’s actually running a piracy drill as the actual pirates attack, meaning he couldn’t have been better prepared for the situation. But against determined men with machine guns and hooked ladders, even the best laid plans can go wrong.
Muse and three other men eventually board the ship. Phillips hides his crew in the engine room while attempting to mislead and stall the pirates until help arrives. Eventually the pirates realize they can’t steal a ship so big, so they take Phillips as a hostage and escape on a lifeboat. The US Navy finally gets involved, and the resulting stand-off and resolution is so intense, it will be hard to believe it all actually happened.
Captain Phillips is directed by Paul Greengrass of Bourne fame, but his other film, United 93, might be more relevant. That was also a true story of extraordinary heroism, and Greengrass knows how to push intensity to an insane degree, which can be tough to do in films based on true stories with known outcomes.
It’s also hard to say enough about Tom Hank’s performance here. Yes, yes, it’s expected that once again, we’ll have Hanks and Sandra Bullock as Oscar frontrunners, but there’s a reason for that. They’re just so damn good. Hanks’ Phillips is one of the bravest ordinary men I’ve ever seen portrayed onscreen, and Hanks strikes a perfect balance between cleverness and caution, before breaking into all-out hysteria when the action comes to ahead. As evidenced from the title, this movie IS the character, and chances are the film wouldn’t have been half as effective without Hanks in the role.
It’s also appreciated the movie attempts to portray the pirates as more than just a mindless evil force. “We no Al Qaeda,” Muse says repeatedly “Just business!” They’re fisherman with no fish, tasked to hijack ships by warlords who will steal from them and hurt their families if they don’t. No, they don’t exactly live on the moral high ground, but the film aims to show that these new era pirates aren’t just dark-skinned Jack Sparrows out for fame and glory and unlimited riches. But they are still brutal and greedy, and you’re mostly rooting for their demise.
Nothing needs to be said about the story, as it’s an accurate account of one of the most extraordinary rescues in modern military history. It’s the kind of story that’s so unbelievable you have to look it up afterward to confirm it all really happened, and in this case, it all did, right down to the incredible, impossible finale.
Captain Phillips is easily one of the strongest films of the year so far with Hanks giving one of his best performances to date, and knowing the man, that’s saying something.