Captain Phillips is one of two 2013 movies in which Tom Hanks plays a real person based on real events in a motion picture. The other is Saving Mr. Banks, which Hanks as Sgt. Walt Disney storms the beaches of Nazi-occupied France to rescue banker George Banks (David Tomlinson) from the clutches of the evil Cockney Dick van Dyke and...you know, it's possible I haven't watched the trailer on this one yet. In neither of these movies is Hanks playing lovable drawling Woody the Cowboy or brooding historical detective Robert Langdon but the real nautical captain Richard Phillips, whose freight ship Maersk Alabama was hijacked in 2009 by Somali pirates, leading to Captain Phillips being kidnapped and taken on a tense sea voyage towards Somalia where he will surely be killed if the combined forces of the United States Navy Fleet As It Appears on Film™ aren't able to rescue him first. Spoiler warning: Captain Phillips survived to later wrote a book on his ordeal, which was made into this movie by director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum). With the military chops of a Bourne movie but filmed in a quasi-documentary style reminiscent of Greengrass's United 93 and Green Zone, Phillips is an odd mix of a political statement and a Tom Clancy-style adventure that never can quite decide which of the two it wants to be. Smart move, then, to cast Hanks, the ordinary man's ordinary man who does ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances and lives to tell the tale.
Hanks plays it straight throughout. His Phillips is strong-willed and sharp but low-key, about as demonstrative as a Dane on Xanax. Despite the film's thriller-trappings he's no action hero: his reaction to Maersk Alabama's boarding and capture by Somali pirates is to stay calm, play dumb, protect his crew and keep his eyes open. It's the same crew he chewed out a few scenes earliera pointed scene that's about as low-key as you would expect a stern Tom Hanks would be, but his crew gets the point immediately: coffee break's over, we're entering dangerous waters. Hanks's restrained, impassive expression (and a not entirely convincing Boston accent) matches the muted colors, the worn machinery and the gritty, grainy dark scenes as his crew hides in the engine room or during the ordeal of being carted off by the pirates in his own ship's lifeboat. Plainly, this is the fella we're rooting for to triumph over those nasty, terribly foreign Somali pirates, even if we can't locate Somalia on a map. It probably has a shore for them to have pirates, right?
That the pirates are plain by Somali-born actors we haven't seen on the screen twenty times before it a benefit; that they play so well off against Hanks is a plus. Gangly, gawky Barkhad Abdi stands out as pirate captain Muse, as chock-full of self-assured arrogance as a cup of coffee is of
Even in their incredibly primitive pirate boats, the pirates and their portrayers are a force to be reckoned with. They're motivated by greed but also survival. Greengrass gives a token nod to them being forced into this life by a Somali warlord and throws in a few exchanges between them and Phillips on the modern necessity of their lives, but that's about the extent of it. There's little real social commentary here, especially in the second half, which begins to resemble a Tom Clancy adventure with parachuting Navy SEALs, crack sharpshooters, highly-developed bugging devices and all events being video-recorded by naval personnel for future reference (and, in his post-Abu Ghraib age, to keep military personnel on the up-and-up when interrogating prisoners?). For all its real world trappings, it may as well be an episode of Star Trek, with Romulans and the Neutral Zone stepping in for pirates and Somalia. Phillips even has his own Corbomite Maneuver, a Kirk-like bluff playing both sides of a radio exchange between the Maersk Alabama and supposed US military forces. It scares off half of the initial attackers, but unlike Shatner, Hanks plays his Captain straight, just the hint of the wheels of that magnificent Hanks-brain turning around to plan a possible defense. Not like Kirk then, more like Spock: Phillips is impassive and muted, calm under fire and sans cinematic wisecracks, keeping his emotions under wraps until the very last moments of the film. He only goes into a sobbing shock at the end. As do we.
There's no denying Captain Phillips is as compelling, especially during the sea chase sequences. This is a film in which to crank up your pacemaker to keep time, and don't bother with the popcorn; it'll sit in your lap forgotten. But in the hands of a less commercial and action-oriented director, would this have been a film of more political import than tailored entertainment? Would we have gotten more than a head nod to current events? Would we have gone to see a film that goes into more depth about the plight of the Somali people and the economic and political challenges of our times? Well, probably not. But Captain Phillips can't decide which film it wants to be. Is this a product of it being based on a true story? You can't turn this real-life man into Die Hard's John McClane...even if he's defending his ship under siege and uses broken glass to thwart barefoot intruders. There's plenty of cliché of the opposite kind: a captain who's the only one who can see the real danger before it strikes among a crew of competent but casual, familiar lack of discipline on the Maersk Alabama; the triteness of artificial drama in a line like "You'd better get up here, Captain," rather than quick information on the emergency, and the all-flags at full-mast, Anchors Aweigh guest appearance by what pretty much seems like every competent officer and crewperson in the U.S. Navy. All that's lacking is Barack Obama stepping out of a hatch and stating "Well done, gentlemen."
So here's a tip: go to see Captain Phillips for the tremendous performances by Hanks, Abdi and Abdirahman; stay for the crack timing and catch-your-breath action, don't think too much about the political real-world issues at hand until you're at home later, and tune in on March 2, 2014 to see Tom Hanks do his comfortable, familiar, "gosh, who, me?" expression when he's called up to the stage to pick up his third bookend. Anyway, the other actors that will probably be up for Oscar in 2014 could probably get away with sending in a letter that they're sick that day and they can't make it in. Start writing your excuse notes now, guys.
Captain Phillips premieres at the New York Film Festival 2013, and opens nationally on October 11, 2013.