Screened Out – Captain Phillips

By : Stephen Miller
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Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener

Some actors are so subtle, so consistent, that you forget how good they are. Tom Hanks is, in a way, the perfect American everyman, not nearly as debonair as Clooney, nor really as versatile as Downey Jr. or Penn. But Hanks is sure-footed and steady. He’s been successful at both comedy and drama, and he’s one of our few actors who’s won back-to-back Oscars (Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, two entirely different roles).

Hanks’ fortitude is needed in abundance in Captain Phillips, the biopic about the Maerck Alabama captain taken hostage by Somali pirates in a deadly, six-day gambit for ransom money.

Captain Richard Phillips at first tried to protect his crew, putting his own life in danger. This cost him, as the Somali pirates learned very quickly, as their options shrank, who was responsible, who was the most reasonable, and who was the best target for kidnapping. At first on the large shipping boat, and then later in a small, sub-like lifeboat, Phillips had to prove his mettle. He made crucial decisions, built trust and rapport with his captors, and struggled to save his and his crews’ lives.

To say this movie is grueling is an understatement. Often, the best, most powerful movies are supremely difficult to sit through, the pay-off coming from what we as audiences learn vicariously through the characters’ experience.

So, yes, there’s more to Captain Phillips than just tense, nail-biting drama. The Somali pirates are criminals, starved, addicted to amphetamine-like khat leaves, illogical, and dangerous. They are also desperate; their economic situation, with feudal lords attacking their towns and families, demanding payoff,  drive the pirates to sociopathic, senseless crime. Captain Phillips isn’t afraid to show this economic conflict and how it creates tragic situations like this violent, horrifying kidnapping.

Barkhad Abdi and other Somali-American actors bring a desperate tension to their parts.

Barkhad Abdi and other Somali-American actors bring a desperate tension to their parts.

Films like this take a steady knowledge of how much nerve-wracking anticipation an audience can stand. Too much waiting with hearts pounding and the film loses steam; too little and it seems like just another dumb action flick. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) is the right man for this job. His hand-held camera work and long, twisting scenes are great at showing off Hanks’ acting, as the center of this story.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

And speaking of perfect men for this job, Hanks has a way, even with officious Captain Richard Phillips, to garner our sympathies, even as he shows the captain’s growing sympathy for his Somali captors. (It’s an interesting argument as to whether this is Stockholm Syndrome, brilliant gambit, or just the captain being the brave soul he always was.)

So, maybe Hanks’ New England accent isn’t consistent. Also, his first scene with wife Keener is terribly written, heavy-handed.

The rest of this is long, gut-wrenching tension, tactical brilliance, and majestic acting. It all culminates in the most heart-breaking, beautiful ending, one that will likely earn Hanks yet another Oscar nomination and make audiences realize, as the credits roll, what a treasure this actor is.

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