CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Review: Survival of the Fittest
It’s hard to believe that my first introduction to Tom Hanks – the first introduction to Hanks for many people, really – was when he played a cross-dresser. Twenty-one years before producing 2001’s Band of Brothers; fifteen years before voicing Woody in the first Toy Story film; thirteen years before his first Oscar (Best Actor, 1993’s Philadelphia); even eight years before he (and Robert Loggia) charmed the world by playing “Heart and Soul” on a giant toy store keyboard in 1988’s Big, Hanks owned Thursday night TV on when he appeared in Bosom Buddies.
The sitcom starred Hanks and Peter Scolari as coworkers and friends who find themselves homeless when their apartment building is torn down. In an act of desperation, they dress as women to get a cheap apartment that rents to women only. Hilarity ensues. The show only lasted two seasons, but that was enough time for Hanks to make a major impression in Hollywood, which ultimately led to a lead role in Ron Howard‘s Splash (1984). Hanks never looked back.
With everything he does, from acting to producing to writing and directing, he adds impressive entries to an already-impressive career resumé that is far too long to be fully inclusive here. His latest entry – Captain Phillips – is no exception; in fact, it’s one of the best performances in the actor’s 30-plus-year career.
Hanks plays Richard Phillips, a merchant marine and captain of an American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. While on course in dangerous waters to deliver their payload, the ship is hijacked by Somali pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Using courage, cunning, and decades of experience, Phillips manages to keep his entire crew unharmed and convinces the pirates to abandon the freighter and escape on a small life vessel. Muse agrees, but takes Phillips with him as a hostage to negotiate a huge payday.
As Phillips keeps his cool under incredible duress – and in the process keeping himself alive – the United States military has two plans in place. The first involves a negotiation with the pirates. The second involves a Navy SEAL rescue, and negotiation is not part of that plan.
On the surface, Captain Phillips is about the title character’s survival. Director Paul Greengrass wastes little time in getting his star and his story on a boat, out to sea, and quickly in peril so he can tell that survival tale. While on the Maersk Alabama, and subsequently (and especially) on the lifeboat, Greengrass really shows directing skill. The tight quarters enhance the frenetic pace and the tense situation, and Greengrass maximizes the claustrophobic feeling and shoots his close-ups effectively. Even the moments on the larger ship that are more procedural in nature – things like raising engine capacity limits – are taut.
Less so are most of the scenes involving the military rescue which, despite their relationship to Phillips’ plight, simply don’t carry the same intensity. In fact, they feel like mostly stock footage from any random action film. Greengrass also feels out of his element with big exteriors. Given the vastness of the ocean and the varying sizes of the ships (not just the freighter and the lifeboat, but the Navy vessels as well), I expected a greater sense of scope. There are good moments (the lifeboat being launched into the water is the highlight), but there are real head-scratchers, too (when the SEALs parachute out of their plane, Greengrass chooses to stay in the plane instead of following them out – an opportunity missed, I think.)
Beneath that surface, though, is a story about two men who are not that much different: Phillips and Muse. Both men are leaders. Both men are desperate. Both men are looking to survive.
At the beginning of the film, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray establish the at-home reality of each man. For Phillips, it’s a wife (Catherine Keener) and family. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Phillips seem particularly happy about the work he does, but his comments about young, hungry guys coming up through the ranks and looking to captain freighters is all the more reason for him to take such assignments. The work he does today ensures he has a chance to work tomorrow.
Muse has no wife or family, and the up-and-comers in his line of work are closer to being literal cut-throats than anyone in Corporate America ever could be. For him, daily survival is less about continued work and more about continued living. Failure is not an option, and is met by his warlord boss with something far more dire than an unemployment line.
These survival instincts for both men carry forward once the pirates have seized the ship and they continue as Phillips is the lone hostage in a tiny lifeboat. And no matter how accustomed Muse might be to life-and-death situations, this one certainly has more weight to it given America’s involvement. Abdi does an excellent job throughout the film, but he gets better as his character’s prospects of success grow dimmer. You wouldn’t know he’s a rookie actor, either, as he holds his own against Hanks, who simply shines.
Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Hanks is required to demonstrate a person’s suppression of a range of emotions – suppression borne of necessity to hold to all together and survive an ordeal. Unlike Bullock, who did so alone, Hanks must do this in scenes with the two-time Oscar-nominated Keener; a collection of fantastic character actors who play his ship’s crew (led by the excellent David Warshofsky); and the four actors who play the pirates: Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, who among them have exactly one movie … this one. Hanks manages it all effortlessly, and his last couple of minutes onscreen are amazing.
While slightly longer than it needs to be because of some drawn out scenes in the middle of the film, Captain Phillips is a thrilling movie to watch, and Hanks’ performance is one for the ages.