In the opening scene of Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks’ character, Rich Phillips, has a frank conversation with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) while they drive to the airport. As a teacher, I took special note of this conversation, as it pertained to Phillips’ concern regarding his son’s performance in school. He tells his wife that he’s worried that the world is far more competitive than it used to be and that even putting in the minimum is not enough to rise above and have a chance at success. I’ve delivered various versions of this message to my high school students and while this conversation stood out to me for a different reason than it will to many other theatergoers, this seemingly innocuous scene sets the tone for a far more substantial and contextual film than I had expected.
Adapted from Richard Phillips’ memoir, Captain Phillips tells the somewhat well-known true story of an American cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in the Spring of 2009. The surprisingly rapid turnaround between original incident and major film production speaks volumes to the merits of the story. The film presents a form of “bio-pic” that forgoes the melodramatic retelling of fact, and instead uses real life to make a statement, in this case about globalization. Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), aims his “shaky” camera not only at the heroic protagonist, but also at what leads these Somali pirates to take such risky action. By the time the pirates board Phillips’ ship, we are thoroughly disturbed and authentically frightened for what they may be capable of doing to take over the vessel. The four pirates are meticulously realized through some menacing bilingual performances by a group of first-time Somali actors. As the film unfolds, their story and motivations are every bit as fascinating and gripping as those of Phillips and his crew. Phillips’ opening conversation with his wife about the stresses of competition and the vanishing opportunities for those less fortunate becomes realized as we see this despair front and center.
Tom Hanks is sure to earn an Oscar nomination for his performance in this film. In fact, this may be the performance of his career, certainly his best since Philadelphia. His pragmatic performance is captivating, and he is never over-the-top. In a scene where Muse, the lead pirate, invades the cargo ship’s control room, Phillips squares off with the pirates for the first time. Hanks responds to this scenario so well and so realistically that it is easy to forget that this is a movie and not real life. As the film goes on, Hanks tempers his performance for every new development culminating in a scene towards the end that is nothing short of brilliant, heartbreaking, and stirring.
Captain Phillips is another great movie for 2013. While the story is still relatively current and many film-goers will be aware of its outcome, Greengrass, Hanks, and the supporting cast ensure a thrilling experience. The film also works on a deeper level by examining the motives of the pirates and theorizing about some of the policies that should, perhaps, be revisited regarding freighter security measures and the “acceptable” risks that are taken for the sake of transporting goods overseas. The film resonates with vivacity but Hanks’ performance is the film’s true strength. A-
Captain Phillips is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes.