Cool Hand Tom
By Carl Kozlowski
Over the course of his 30-year film career, Tom Hanks has battled AIDS, romanced a mermaid, uncovered the secrets of the Vatican and filled the shoes of a simpleminded man unwittingly present for the most important historical moments of the past 60 years. In all of these roles, Hanks has proven to be the modern-day equivalent of Jimmy Stewart: An “everyman actor” who keeps his cool no matter how dramatic the circumstances.
This ability comes in extremely handy in Hanks’ latest film, the fact-based nail-biter Captain Phillips, in which Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, who made headlines around the world in spring 2009 after his cargo ship was attacked by Somali pirates and he was taken hostage.
By the time of his kidnapping, Phillips had already allowed the pirates to take the lifeboat and $30,000 in cash from the ship’s safe, believing they would leave without harming him or his crew. But the pirates were desperate for a score. Believing they could get as much as $10 million in ransom from the ship’s insurance company if they could just land with the captain on a Somali shore, they made a desperate run for it, even as the U.S. Navy arrived with orders to stop the pirates at all costs.
Of course, the ending of Phillips’ ordeal is well known, as a team of Navy SEALS parachuted onto a nearby aircraft carrier and shot and killed the three remaining pirates aboard the lifeboat at the exact same time. But the fact that director Paul Greengrass is able to still make it all feel unpredictable is a testament to the master craftsmanship of the man behind The Bourne Ultimatum and more aptly, United 93.
In that 2006 film, Greengrass places viewers in the middle of a dead-on recreation of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history—the September 11 terrorist attack on United Airlines Flight 93, in which passengers fought with the terrorists and downed the aircraft in a field outside Shanksville, PA. He used unknown actors in that film as a means of making them just as average as the real-life passengers who rose to perform acts of heroism that fateful morning.
The final result was a film of devastating power, ranking with Schindler’s List and The Passion of the Christ as one of the most disturbing yet meaningful films in the last 20 years.
In Captain Phillips, however, Greengrass changes the game plan. Perhaps it’s a concession to the fact that United 93 was too downbeat to become a hit (it earned only $31 million domestically), yet more likely tied to the fact that Phillips has a happier ending and needs an iconic presence to bring the captain’s story to life, but here Greengrass uses Hanks as a human centrifuge around which the rest of the film’s wild events spin.
Hanks steps up to the challenge, showing the emotional shifts that Phillips makes from being a tough and cranky boss to a wily negotiator for his own life and ultimately a man who endures unbelievable tension. His performance appears deceptively simple at first, but by the end the two-time Oscar winner pulls out all the stops with a performance that redefines the public perception of his capabilities.
Captain Phillips also deserves credit for presenting the pirates as more than mere villains, as writer Billy Ray shows the economic desperation and fierce yet wounded pride that drives these men to steal and kill in the name of a failed state that offers no legal options for survival.
As Muse, a scrawny man whose fierce determination and grandiose dreams of wealth make him the de facto leader of the pirates, Barkhad Abdi captures the magic of Greengrass’ casting approach.
As he veers between fear that he will never make it beyond a life of daily desperation and a dangerous cockiness that he can steer the situation into making a fortune, Muse is a fearsome sight to behold. Yet the fact that he is an utterly unrecognizable actor to Americans immerses viewers into Phillips’ state of terror, primarily because there are no preconceptions of how he’ll handle the part.
Captain Phillips is a long movie, running 134 minutes, and perhaps it could have shaved off 15 minutes from the lifeboat’s scenes of circular arguments among the pirates But the remainder works incredibly well, leaving viewers with a film that races the heart and challenges the mind while creating tension that pays off handsomely without forcing viewers away through grim alienation.
For that, Greengrass is to be saluted for guiding this ship on a course toward smart entertainment.