Captain Phillips is a Tom Hanks movie featuring Oscar Hanks rather than Robert Langdon – that’s to say that it features a genuine award-winning lead performance that deserves the buzz it’s been getting. The movie too, intensely directed by Paul Greengrass (Green Zone, The Bourne Ultimatum), is smart, well-oiled, and more than competently assembled.
Why then is this dramatisation of the true story of a pirate hijacking so predictable and, ultimately, bland? Is it because the titular captain is, at his core, an everyman sort of bloke? Maybe, but Hanks’ performance endows him with a textured, cautious life. Or is it Greengrass’ pseudo-documentary style of filmmaking? The shaky cam is present but never intrudes on the narrative. I was aware of its presence, but it’s used to accentuate a sense of realism (and is thankfully not accompanied by quick cuts and choppy editing).
No, when it comes down to it, Captain Phillips underwhelms simply because this tale of a captain whose ship is hijacked by Somali pirates and who’s then taken captive himself is not near as interesting as other real-life stories that have been co-opted for film. Movies like Apollo 13 and Rush, both of which I’ve discussed recently (probably because they’re terrific!), are examples where truth is indeed stranger than fiction. In this case however, Billy Ray’s screenplay rings with truth but doesn’t astound or surprise beyond the average thriller.
The film is at its most exciting when the pirates are racing to board the Maersk Alabama, but once the ruffians land on the ship the momentum dies down with the metallic clunk of their ladder. It’s never slow but it only ever moves forward from there at a measured pace, maintaining intensity but never throttling it to white-knuckle levels. First-time actor Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the scarily thin leader of the pirate gang, ably stands toe-to-toe with Hanks’ Phillips and helps to keep the story compelling from this point onwards. It’s the interplay of these two captains that gives Hanks enough material to chew on, preserving interest despite the inevitable outcome.
We get the sense that both Phillips and Muse are trapped in the situation that they end up in by forces beyond their control. Neither captain wants to be where they are; you can sense Greengrass’ underlying message about the effects of globalisation creeping into frame. Still, it’s never the focus of the picture. At its core, Captain Phillips is the story of a man kidnapped by pirates. It’s a true story, no doubt tinkered with for the big screen, but a straightforward yarn all the same that’s elevated by Tom Hanks’ masterful acting chops.
Tom Hanks gives a grandstanding performance in this blandly predictable but smart adaptation of a true story.