Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Different Kind of Cast Away: Captain Phillips

     Tom Hanks is one of those actors who is so good at what he does. Sometimes it barely gets noticed--his every-man charm, goofiness, and likability come off as so natural that he isn't even making an effort. But every now and then he involves himself in a role that can change perceptions about how good he is at his craft. His portrayal in Captain Phillips is one of those roles: showcasing a bare-it-all emotional climax and a subdued but anxious performance, Hanks adds another good film to his resume, a film that is exciting and taut with tension but is ultimately pretty standard and a bit overlong. It's like Zero Dark Thirty without the backroom dealings and ambiguity, and it's a lesser film to director Paul Greengrass' tear-jerkingly-intense similar film, the true-life story United 93.
     Captain Phillips' based-on-reality plot is something that Hollywood would have loved to dream up: the fact that it's real only adds to the scariness of its situation. Hanks is the titular character, the captain of the American container ship MV Maersk Alabama. His small crew respects him due to his diligence and no-nonsense attitude about the dangers and possibilities of what can go wrong at sea (especially near the Horn of Africa). He's the type of Captain that you'd want on your ship--stern and trustworthy. Not long after the ship enters Somali pirate territory, a nerve-wracking blip begins to ping on the ship's radar. The two little boats with their choking outboard motors seem like no match for the massive ship and its powerful fire hoses, but a lack of sufficient weaponry and a small crew allow a group of four armed pirates to jump aboard.
     Led by a man named Muse, the group makes demands that set off a chain reaction of intense events. Muse is portrayed by Barkhad Abdi, and he's the Somali man that the film focuses most on. But he's not a true villain: he seemingly has some compassion and doesn't seem interested in murdering any of the crew. He just wants the treasure of the cargo to make his bosses happy back home. When the situation escalates into a long sequence involving a lifeboat and the ever-present involvement of the United States Navy, Muse seems to realize that he's a man without choices: he's torn between realizing his errors and having no other options. Abdi--an acting newcomer--does a solid job of internalizing the character's struggles.
     Though Captain Phillips--with a run time of over two hours--has trouble sustaining its intensity through the long lifeboat portion, its climax and Hanks' haunting final moments are sure to stick with the viewer for a few days afterward. Maybe not since the other ocean-based film Cast Away has Hanks had such a powerful performance. But Phillips, as a whole, didn't affect me as much as another Paul Greengrass film, United 93. They're surely very similar: they both involve hijackers, men set in their convictions (whether its in the name of money or in the name of religion), and both employ hand-held camera techniques (a Greengrass staple) that add to the tension and confusion of the more energetic scenes. So what is Phillips missing? For one, since both films are based on true stories, we know the outcome. One could type a few words into Google and find out how the Captain's story ends. United 93, on the other hand, because we know the plane crashes into an empty field, is that much more tragic and heroic. The few passengers on the plane ultimately saved hundreds more because of their selflessness. Captain Phillips is more about the flexing of military muscle, and while that's surely entertaining, a few Somali's stranded at sea are no match for skydiving Seals and high-tech sniper rifles. It's lacks the human element that 93 employs so awesomely.
     Captain Phillips is an above-average time at your local cinema. But it sometimes feels more like a procedural than a full on exciting ride. There's nothing too surprising about the film; what you expect to happen...happens. Maybe it had too much to do with my thoughts on other films: the similar but superior United 93, the recent technical brilliance of Gravity, the recent beauty of Prisoners, the recent violent style of You're Next. But Captain Phillips, despite Tom Hanks' great performance and plenty of entertainment, treads water a little bit too much and fails to reach true greatness.    (B)

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