GREG’S GRADE: A
Welcome back, Tom Hanks.
One of the most celebrated actors of his — or any — generation, Hanks never really went anywhere. But one can argue that he hasn’t done much of note in the past decade — not compared to the previous 15 years, at least. “Captain Phillips,” the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, the first U.S. cargo ship to be hijacked in roughly 200 years, heralds the return of the actor who won back-to-back Oscars in the 1990s and who riveted audiences in 2000 with a volleyball as his only co-star (“Cast Away”).
As Richard Phillips, the sea captain who undoubtedly saved the lives of at least some of his crew only to be taken hostage himself, Hanks doesn’t play the hero; he emphasizes the humanity in the man. His Phillips is intelligent and resourceful, keeping his wits about him even with a gun pointed at his face, but he’s also scared and increasingly desperate. He puts up a stoic front, Hanks underplaying those emotions for the sake of his crew and as a show of strength for the hijackers, until those final, excruciatingly suspenseful moments. The movie’s last scene is an Oscar clip if ever there was one.
As strong as Hanks is in the role, though, the title “Captain Phillips” is somewhat misleading. Director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray have a much broader focus than one man’s heroism.
While the pirates are prepared to kill to accomplish their goals, they, too, are victims in a way, destitute (some don’t even have shoes), living in ramshackle tents and lean-tos on the Somali coast, at the beck and call of warlords who live in luxury. Muse (Barkhad Abdi), leader of the group of four that takes the Alabama, boasts of ransoming a ship for $6 million. How much of that did you get? Phillips asks, as Muse and his companions stand in front of him wearing little more than rags.
Circumstance — their respective positions inside and outside the world economy — has led Phillips and Muse to this point far more than the choices either has made, the movie contends. Though Muse certainly is villainous, Ray’s script affords Abdi the time to find the humanity in him, as well, and the first-time Somali-American actor responds by giving an award-worthy performance of his own.
Shooting the bulk of the film on actual ships in the open water, Greengrass combines the you-are-there immediacy of his “United 93” (2006) with the pulsating action of his “Bourne” movies. The tension is unrelenting, even if you know how the story ends — a testament to Greengrass’ pacing and staging, and the power of the performances.
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use. 134 minutes.