What a pleasure it is to watch Tom Hanks give a remarkable performance of untapped emotional depths in Captain Phillips. One of America’s most beloved actors, with a mostly sturdy career and a reputation as a modern day Jimmy Stewart, he finally found a vehicle worthy of his verisimilitude as a performer.
If you look back on Hanks’ career choices from the beginning, he seemed to have a consistent approach to his most famous roles. In comedy, he’d play it broadly, unafraid to hilariously go over the top, juicing every possible laugh like the former sitcom and theater veteran he is. In dramas, he’d dial it down considerably, underplaying and finding the human core of troubled, sometimes tragic characters.
But the last few years gave me reason to worry that he’d lost his touch: the ill-considered Cloud Atlas gave Hanks multiple dramatic roles, which he mostly hammed up shamelessly. He also strangely underplayed the title role of his embarrassing comedy, Larry Crowne. Now, as directed by Paul Greengrass, Hanks has a role and a film worthy of mention alongside his dramatic highs of Philadelphia and Cast Away.
Many will remember this story, as it unfolded dramatically in 2009: Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) and his crew man a cargo ship headed for Mombasa. A few of those aboard mention that the ship is entering waters known for piracy. Not long after Phillips stages a safety drill, his ship is attacked and hijacked by Somali pirates. While his crew hid (they were correctly following the hostage procedure from their training), Phillips had a standoff with the pirates that developed in frightening and surprising ways.
It plays like a traditional high-seas adventure, but with a post-9/11 urgency and a gripping intensity you’d expect under the direction of Greengrass, who helmed The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. He also made United 93, a celebrated depiction of the 9/11 terrorists hijacking the jet that crashed before reaching its target. I wasn’t a fan of that film, which I found exploitative and too horrible to bear. But Greengrass’ documentary-like approach and focus on emotional truths serves him far better here, though the story is no less harrowing. The day-to-day life on the ship is effectively portrayed, as is the functional but distant manner in which Phillips communicates with his crew.
The pirate attacks by sea are superbly staged, with a percussive score and masterful editing that maintain edge of your seat suspense. Greengrass creates a you-are-there approach that matches the visceral, stripped-down excitement of his Jason Bourne thrillers, though a few moments also remind us that he sometimes allows his handheld camera to shake too much.
The third act gets a tad redundant, but this is redeemed entirely by Hanks, whose performance taps into stunningly raw places we’ve never seen him go before. The actors playing the pirates may be newcomers but they convey their character’s desperation and struggle to maintain control. In particular, Barkhad Abdi, playing Muse, the leader, has a wonderful face and presence I won’t forget. A frizzy-haired Catherine Keener appears briefly in the opening, playing Phillips wife. She’s saddled with some clunky dialogue about the troubled state of the world. It’s the only scene in the movie that doesn’t work.
Greengrass’ last film was the flawed Green Zone but he, like Hanks, have returned to form. Hopefully, this won’t be their sole collaboration. The high caliber of Billy Ray’s screenplay has brought out the best in both of them. Coming a week after Gravity, this is another superb drama about the human will to live and survive through traumatic circumstances.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Scale)