By Conor Plosia
Captain Phillips was screened at NYFF to a packed house of weary writers on a warm fall morning. The highly anticipated Tom Hanks flick by Bourne Ultimatum Director Paul Greengrass offers an intense thrill ride filled with great performances, gritty cinematography and brief but honest moments of social commentary.
Tom Hanks portrays Richard Phillips, a ship captain on a simple cargo expedition with a defenseless crew. They’re out on international waters when Somali pirates threaten them. The film’s timeline simultaneously displays two backstories – Phillips’ journey and the Somalis’ – until the moment they collide. Captain Phillips is a two-headed film, and its mirrored performances provide some originality within its subgenre of based-on-a-true-story thrillers.
But the film is an above-average sea thriller in a number of ways. There are other films with similar premises (Battleship, for instance) where it’s too distinctly clear who the heroes are and who the bad guys are. With Captain Phillips, we are given a two-sided story in which both have reasonable justification for their actions. Richard Phillips will do anything to protect his crew and the contents of the ship, even if it means risking his own life. The Somalis are in constant fear of death or torture from the bosses of the gangs; the captain of the small group of pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), does not initially want to hurt anyone, but he doesn’t have many options when death is his penalty for failure.
It is hard to watch the poverty and fear that come with the conditions of Somali life and not empathize with the characters; they’ve been dealt this life and they have to survive with the resources around them. And though Phillips comes from a rural Vermont home and a beautiful family, they have the similar basic intentions: to live and earn a living. Greengrass may not have meant to make a film that is filled with social and ethical dilemmas on an existential level, but Captain Phillips can be viewed this way, and doing so lends the picture more character.
Tom Hanks shines in the most desperate moments of the film. One moment, he’s in control and commanding his vessel, the next he and his crew are rendered helpless by the extreme behavior of the pirates. We rarely see actors allowing themselves to become so emotionally attached to a role, but there is no mistaking Hanks’ dedication and passion here, and the result is a supreme performance late in his career.
Newcomer Barkhad Abdi portrays Muse, the leader of the pirates. The thoughtful “fisherman” commands his crew of sea criminals. He guides us through the film, struggling with his own inner conflict of fighting out of a world of poverty and maintaining a steady balance with Captain “Irish” Phillips. Abdi remains poised throughout the film, and his scenes with Hanks touch on something special (such close quarter acting isn’t always easy, but it can be conducive to bringing a crew together).
Could the film earn Tom Hanks his first Oscar in 13 years? A best picture nomination? Possibly even an acting nod for newcomer Barkhad Abdi? Critics and festival audiences alike are buzzing about the film and Oscar season is upon us. Only time will only tell what nominations Captain Phillips will (or won’t) receive.