October 24, 2013

Captain Phillips: Floating Toward the Brink

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Oscar season is now in full swing. Several heavyweight contenders are in the running for Best Actor nominations, with well-deserved praise going to Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave and Robert Redford in All is Lost. You can now add Tom Hanks to the thick of that list,  for his raw and riveting performance as an ordinary ship captain pushed to his limits by incredible circumstances. Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass with a tight script by Billy Ray (Breach, The Hunger Games), recreates the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, an American freighter which was overtaken by Somali pirates for five dark days. As Richard Phillips, Hanks is more than up to the challenge of portraying an everyman suddenly charged with ensuring the survival of his crew — and himself.

We first see Phillips leave his Vermont home in the morning, talking about his son with his wife (Catherine Keener), before he reports to Oman, where the Alabama will depart. The story that made world headlines comes into play shortly thereafter. Once around the Horn of Africa, the ship that Phillips commands is boarded by four pirates, but not before he cleverly uses fear tactics to deter another skiff full of them. Phillip’s ingenuity notwithstanding, the crew is completely unprotected: The Alabama, by law, is required to have no guns or weapons and is not traveling with other freighters. Once onboard, the pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi, a force of nature), scream and shove their AK-47s in Phillips’ face, demanding millions as a ransom. When Phillips promises them $30,000, the dissatisfied Muse prepares to shoot one of the crew, but the captain convinces him to reconsider and agrees to help the pirates search the ship. After once again drawing on his resourcefulness to prevent them from discovering the crew, Phillips allows himself to be launched from the vessel in a lifeboat along with the hijackers.

Here is where things get hairy. The navy is called in and eventually, the USS Bainbridge arrives with orders to rescue Phillips. Their number one priority is to stop the lifeboat from reaching the Somali coast, using any means necessary. Soon thereafter, Phillips is entangled in a grueling tug-of-war between the Somalis crammed in the lifeboat with him and the powerful US warships only meters away. We know how the story ends, but that doesn’t make the film any less of a white-knuckle ride.

In a career that already includes miracle performances in Philadelphia, Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks delivers yet again. We are about due for another tour de force from this masterful actor, and this represents his greatest, most convincing turn since he held the screen for a full hour and a half, stranded with a volleyball on an island in Cast Away. The memorability of this film is all due to Hanks’ portrayal of the tortured captain who refuses to let down his guard and shirk his professional duties even as he is faced with near-certain death. Toward the film’s end Phillips jumps out of the lifeboat, flailing to the navy for help and beginning to exhibit signs of PTSD, while Hanks never lets us lose sight of the Vermont family man in the water.

Equally as good is Barkhad Abdi, a first-time actor and native Somali as the lead hijacker, who explains to the captain he calls “Irish” that what he does is strictly business. Are there ways to make a living besides hijacking boats? “Maybe in America, Irish,” responds Abdi, with such simple finesse that you buy every word as true to what happened during the real event. Going toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks, Abdi is able to expose the kernel of humanity in these outwardly barbaric hijackers, who are just as much victims of the war-ravaged country they come from as Phillips is a victim of their kidnapping him. Abdi doesn’t seem to be acting so much as embodying his character.

Greengrass’ work has always been rooted in cinema verite, and he films the whole of Captain Phillips as if it were a documentary, using primarily handheld cameras and very few traditional master shots. He brought this same style to his big action pieces The Bourne Ultimatum and Bourne Supremacy and to his best work, the unbearable but incredibly inspiring United 93. Some complain that this camera technique is shaky and nauseating; I happen to find little distraction in it and respect Greengrass’ solemn efforts to add authenticity to the screen.

A strong aura of tension pervades nearly every frame of this movie. Up until the very end, when the waterlogged Captain is rescued in a daring military feat, you will be clutching the arm of your seat with anxiety. The final minutes of the film are splattered in blood and provoke a mixture of excitement and discomfort. Rousing and heroic the ending surely is, but at the same time, it ensures that we emerge from this film shocked and shaken, just as Captain Phillips himself must have been.

Mark DiStefano is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].