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Captain Phillips Movie Review

Captain Phillips (2013) movie poster Captain Phillips

Theatrical Release: October 11, 2013 / Running Time: 134 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Paul Greengrass / Writers: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips, Stephen Talty (book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea)

Cast: Tom Hanks (Captain Richard Phillips), Barkhad Abdi (Muse), Barkhad Abdirahman (Bilal), Faysal Ahmed (Najee), Mahat M. Ali (Elmi), Michael Chernus (Shane Murphy), Corey Johnson (Ken Quinn), Max Martini (SEAL Commander), Chris Mulkey (John Cronan), Yul Vazquez (Captain Frank Castellano), David Warshofsky (Mike Perry), Catherine Keener (Andrea Phillips)

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In Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass applies the fact-driven docudrama approach he took on United 93 to a more intimate, less earth-shattering hijacking.
Whereas on that Academy Award-nominated 2006 film, made between two improbably highly-regarded Jason Bourne sequels, Greengrass deliberately opted for a no-name cast, here he fills the title role with one of the biggest names in Hollywood over the past quarter-century: Tom Hanks. That doesn't do anything to diminish the authentic feel that pervades this sea adventure.

Hanks is Rich Phillips, a Vermont man who isn't crazy that his work regularly pulls him away from his nurse wife (Catherine Keener) and now collegiate children. But he takes his work as a cargo ship captain seriously. When he boards the Maersk Alabama in the spring of 2009, he is prepared to transport its contents efficiently and according to plan. The trip requires passing through some waters off the coast of Northern Africa where the threat of piracy is real enough to warrant cautionary e-mails and Phillips running his crew of twenty through a drill.

Though they've prepared for such a scenario, Phillips and his crew are understandably unsettled by their radar's indication of two skiffs rapidly approaching their vast container ship. The Alabama is able to lose the ships and one turns away altogether. But the other one eventually catches up and after making the necessary calls, there's not much more Phillips can do but cooperate and hope for the best. While much of his crew finds places to safely hide, Phillips does the talking to the four armed young Somali men who are able to hook a ladder onto the side of the ship and climb aboard.

Phillips is happy to hand over the $30,000 cash inside the ship's safe and send the pirates on their way. But that is not a plan that Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the foursome's bony, English-speaking leader is willing to accept. Muse figures it will take millions to satisfy his bosses and that the Alabama should be able to yield that kind of money. Phillips agrees to give the intruders a tour of the ship, secretly tipping off his crew as much as he can. The generally easygoing and scarcely defined crew puts up as much a fight as they can in hiding and it's enough to send the hijackers away on the ship's covered lifeboat. They do so with Captain Phillips as their willing hostage, believing he can fetch a ransom to make the experience worth their while.

While the Alabama follows the lifeboat, authorities eventually get involved, with the U.S. Navy and Navy SEALs plotting to rescue the kidnapped captain.

"Captain Phillips" stars Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips, the captain of a cargo ship hijacked by pirates.

The pirates' approach unfolds with more tension and suspense than any horror movie idea. The crew has a couple of miles and a few minutes of notice to prepare for the invasion, and the ship isn't entirely helpless against such fishing vessels. Still, it's clearly a harrowing experience and merely the first of many that Captain Phillips will personally face. Greengrass' knack for gripping action is on fine display here and the entire conflict feels about as well-researched as his 9/11 film was. The stakes aren't as high, the wounds aren't so large, and the story isn't as familiar as the one told in United 93, giving this film less weight but greater unpredictability. Even if you think a sad ending would make this an unusual film subject, such an outcome seems possible without full knowledge of the particulars.

While Tom Hanks is generally considered one of the most popular movie stars of our time, a look at the figures suggests his everyman appeal to the American public started to dip around the middle of last decade. Though he undoubtedly deserves some credit for reeling in moviegoers to The Da Vinci Code, the scandalous material was the real draw there. Likewise, Toy Story 3 wouldn't have been the same without him, but how many tickets were purchased explicitly to hear him voice Woody once more? Hanks' three most recent on-camera appearances have all bombed, finishing around the $30 million mark domestically. In light of that, this probably won't be the big hit it would have been during Hanks' heyday of the '90s through the early 2000s.

At the same time, the film does manage to revive the accomplished actor's diminished credibility. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was a Best Picture nominee, but it wasn't Hanks' movie and nobody seems to have been all that crazy about it. Excluding the wonderful Toy Story 3 for obvious reasons, we have to go back a ways to find a Hanks movie that was truly respected by both critics and the public. Perhaps all the way back to 2002, when Hanks made both Road to Perdition and Catch Me If You Can. This year, he has potential to similarly have two movies feature in year-end lists and award discussions, between Captain and portraying the most decorated filmmaker of all-time, Walt Disney, in December's Saving Mr. Banks. The trailer for that film suggest he doesn't make for a convincing or compelling Walt, but that remains to be seen and the John Lee Hancock-directed drama could still be good in spite of that, with Emma Thompson's take on Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers seemingly of greater importance.

Muse (Barkhad Abdi) leads the Somali pirates aboard the Maersk Alabama. The drama continues for multiple days and nights, with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) being taken hostage inside the Alabama's covered orange lifeboat.

Either way, Captain Phillips appears to be Hanks' more likely ticket to the Oscars, but I wouldn't count on hearing his name announced among the nominees. It's not that his performance as Captain Phillips is lacking; Hanks at least can't be accused of playing himself, for he adopts a New England accent and an all-business demeanor different from his ordinarily fun, avuncular presence. The thing is, though the movie bears his name, it is more about the hijacking than Captain Phillips.

The story, approached from all pertinent angles, is always the main event, not the characters who make it up. Aside from his final scene, Hanks doesn't get to do any real heavy lifting as an actor. He hits the appropriate emotional notes, but with understatement and while sacrificing substantial screentime to his Somali captors. The actors portraying them, especially ringleader Abdi with his otherworldly face, impress. Greengrass displays his welcome restraint not to damn them anymore than the accounts themselves do. It's certainly interesting that we don't hate these pirates as much as you think we would. The movie doesn't push us in any direction, allowing us to judge as we see. It's even possible to sympathize a bit with these misguided hijackers without hating ourselves for doing it. That is one of the great joys of Greengrass' documentarian instincts. He crafts a taut and effective movie, but respects us enough to let us form our own conclusions and interpret the facts he carefully recreates.

With the Oscar season just begun, Captain Phillips has a long way to go to feature as a major contender and I'm not convinced it has what it takes to resonate deeply with key demographics or remain in the discussions for the next several months. The more inclusive Best Picture category certainly has room to accommodate a good film like this, especially if the number of nominees stays at nine, where it's been the last two years. Then again, Gravity didn't strike me as Best Picture fare at my advance screening and now that it has been wholeheartedly embraced by both critics and the public, I'd be shocked if it didn't fill Warner Bros. Pictures' customary slot in the top prize's field.

If nothing else, Captain should remind Hollywood that Tom Hanks can still act in a big, serious movie without creating expectations for a middle-brow crowd-pleaser or expectations that such a mainstream film can't be delightful all the same.

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Reviewed October 11, 2013.

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