In 2009, amidst a rash of piracy-related hijackings, the freighter ship Maersk Alabama was taken by Somali pirates. It was the beginning of a week-long ordeal that was intensely scrutinized by governmental agents, those with a keen interest in foreign policy and, of course, the 24-hour news channels.
The film version of that story, "Captain Phillips," hits theaters this Friday. It stars Tom Hanks as the titular Captain, who survived some pretty arduous conditions in his seven-day hostage scenario (the events of real life have been considerably condensed in the on screen version). The film was directed by Paul Greengrass, who was responsible for "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum."
Are there Oscars in the future for "Captain Phillips?" Or is it dead in the water? Read on to find out!
1. The Beginning Is Really Terrible
You're going to read a lot of praise for "Captain Phillips" (including here). But one thing must be said before the love starts to flow: the first 10 minutes of this movie are atrocious. Like, borderline unwatchable. It's not a lot of screen time, thank god, but man, it's like the movie is stuck in primordial tar. It's basically the home life of Captain Phillips -- brief bits with him at his home in New England, talking to his wife (Catherine Keener) about how much harder their son has it -- and it is torture. It's very clear that Greengrass is a supremely talented filmmaker when it comes to eking out character beats from moments of extreme intensity. He's just not so good when taking them head on.
2. It's the Best Tom Hanks Has Been in a While
Maybe we've taken Tom Hanks's greatness for granted, or maybe he's just been involving himself in recent projects that don't require all that much from him as an actor (as strenuous as "Larry Crowne" was on us all), but "Captain Phillips" feels like a brilliant return-to-form for the star. His job on "Captain Phillips" is a big one: to inject enough warmth and humanity into this character so that the audience totally goes along with his journey and feels what he's feeling every step of the way. Big job, right? But Hanks does it beautifully.
3. The Actor Playing the Main Pirate Is Incredible
And yet, as amazing as Hanks is, he's easily matched, in sheer raw talent, by Barkhad Abdi, who plays the leader of the Somali pirates (named Muse). Abdi is a non-actor who Greengrass discovered and cast in the part; it's astounding that he was able to wrangle such an incredible performance out of him. Instead of painting the character as a one-note bad guy, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray have made the pirates fully dimensional beings. At different points in the movie you find yourself sympathizing with some of them, even. It's bizarre and heartbreaking, and Abdi, in his first time out of the gate, seems to be destined for a Best Supporting Actor.
4. Prepare to Shake...
"Captain Phillips" is unbelievably tense. We're talking real white-knuckle stuff. After the nerve-fraying suspense of "Prisoners" and "Gravity," you might be in the mood for something a little more easygoing. "Captain Phillips" is not that movie. In fact, it's just as suspenseful as those previously mentioned films, perhaps even more so, thanks to the human element and the fact that this stuff actually happened. What the advertisements for the movie don't tell you, too, is that much of the second half takes place inside a small lifeboat, with Hanks's Captain Phillips being held at gunpoint by three armed pirates. This is when the movie goes from simply being thrilling to near vomit-inducing in its intensity. And it never, ever lets up.
5. ... And Cry
Maybe more surprising than how exciting "Captain Phillips" is, is how genuinely emotional things get. Towards the end of the screening we attended, as part of the 51st annual New York Film Festival, the auditorium got very, very quiet. Then you started hearing the sound of heavy sobbing. Then the sound multiplied and soon the entire room sounded like it was badly in need of a hug. The reason for this is a sequence directly after the climax that is one of the most powerful moments you'll see in movies all year (and it's too good to spoil here). Hanks is, of course, riveting, and Greengrass shows a measure of reserve and sensitivity that he rarely taps into. He's a director who can get your pulse racing and tug on your heartstrings, all at the same time.
6. Catherine Keener Must Have Been Left on the Cutting Room Floor
In the opening moments of "Captain Phillips," we're introduced to the Captain's wife, played by Catherine Keener, from "Being John Malkovich" and a thousand other movies. She seems like a smart, tough lady, someone who is supportive of her husband's crazy, way-too-close-to-Somalia route but fearful that he might not come back. In her few minutes of screen time, we understand what she's all about but still want more. Sadly, she never returns. At some point we imagine that there was more to her character, perhaps with sections of the film cutting back to her at home, either watching the crisis unfold or being counseled by some hard-bitten Navy types. Neither actually happens. And the question remains: where did she go?
7. This Might Be Paul Greengrass's Best Movie
Paul Greengrass is a talented filmmaker. Just watch one of the two Bourne movies he directed ("The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum") and you'll notice his skill with the camera and his ability to tell a story in quick, successive images. His jittery hand held style (employed, once again, for "Captain Phillips," which was lensed by his longtime cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) influenced the following decade of action cinema, including the James Bond outing "Casino Royale." But it's in his smaller scale dramas, like "Bloody Sunday," "United 93," and now, "Captain Phillips," that Greengrass really shines. In fact, "Captain Phillips" might be the filmmaker's best movie, if only because the human drama is just as dazzling as the technical stagecraft.
8. It's the Perfect Story for a Film Like This
The discussion came up following the screening that this is the perfect story to be dramatized in such a fashion: it's something that made the national news and was keenly observed but that most people don't know the particulars of. This makes the story ripe fodder for drama, since there is still potential for unexpected twists and turns.
9. Even Though It's Long, It Flies By
At 134 minutes, "Captain Phillips" isn't exactly swift. But even with its inflated running time, it moves quickly. The movie is so relentlessly exciting that it hardly feels like any time at all has passed. This is maybe the very best thing about the movie.
10. You Should Still See 'All Is Lost'
Next week, "All Is Lost," starring Robert Redford in a similarly marooned situation (his small sailing vessel has sprung a leak and he has to contend with nature's cruelty), opens. Just because it is sort of like "Captain Phillips" doesn't mean you should ignore it. Both films are exemplary works and should be seen, even if it never makes you want to get out in the water ever, ever again.