Captain Phillips Review

Jumping way forward in time for my next Tom Hanks archive review (in the spirit of T.Hanks-giving) to probably his best performance of this decade, though I suppose it’s neck and neck with “Sully,” given the similarities. I’m not sure how this didn’t make it onto the site, possibly because I was too late to the party. This is from March 13, 2014.

Tom Hanks, it’s good to have you in the captain’s chair.

The two-time Oscar winner hadn’t quite found his footing since turning 50, but “Captain Phillips” proves that with the right role, there aren’t many actors you’d rather have playing the good guy. This titular role lets Hanks’ average joe qualities shine, not to mention his strength of presence and demeanor.

Captain Richard Phillips is a cargo freighter captain with a no-nonsense attitude. While maneuvering the Maersk Alabama down the coast of Africa, two small boats of Somali pirates show up on radar, and despite everything Phillips does to shake them, one of the boats, led by the utterly determined Muse (Barkhad Abdi), manages to get on board.

Seeing as it’s based on a real-life 2009 hijacking, “Phillips” could have no better director than Paul Greengrass. Here’s a filmmaker that made “United 93” an emotional, captivating and suspenseful at a time when everyone felt a September 11 movie was too soon. Again, Greengrass brings that palm-sweating play-by-play account that keeps the audience on edge despite a known outcome. Even if you don’t know how the story ends, you know the ship gets boarded from the trailers, and even that first set of sequences remains totally gripping. And it’s real-life suspense; very little of what Greengrass does manufactures tension in a Hollywood-like way.

Billy Ray’s adaptation of the real Phillips’ book also doesn’t overstep at all. There are a couple Hollywood moments, and some scenes in which Hanks and Abdi frame the events with some food-for-thought dialogue, but “Captain Phillips” feels especially down to earth. Even the way the film depicts the Navy doesn’t glorify what they do very much.

Narratively, “Phillips” is a straight line with an upward trajectory and maybe two lulls in the tension. There is no trickery or plot twists, but we remain blind to just how the events will unfold, analyzing who has the leverage in this hostage crisis at every turn. So simple and straightforward, yet so captivating.

Hanks does in fact give his best performance in years, though the role is tailored perfectly to his strengths. Phillips is an unsung hero who with courage and resolve attempts to do whatever he can to manage the situation, including making some risky, dumb moves. He doesn’t just flip his bravery switch and he flinches time to time. Hanks does this kind of humanity effortlessly.

“Captain Phillips” sticks mostly to a suspenseful retelling, but Ray’s script doesn’t lose sight of the value of this story. Most films of this nature are content to leave the “foreign aggressors” faceless and nameless, but their conflict, their objectives, their feelings are a significant part of the film. This isn’t a piracy situation for the sake of an entertaining plot, there is a motive here; real Somalis did this because it’s what they felt they had to do.

Rarely do non-fiction and suspenseful entertainment cross paths, yet Greengrass usually finds them both in his crosshairs. “Captain Phillips” proves once more that history and current events don’t have to be boring while giving Hanks the vehicle he deserved.


4/5 Stars


Captain Phillips
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips & Stephen Talty (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener



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