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Captain Phillips

This kind of tension-soaked thriller is director Paul Greengrass’ specialty, and he plays these notes like a virtuoso. At no point was it surprising that he loaded the lead-up to the Maersk Alabama hijacking, and its nail-biting aftermath, with expertly paced and edited(Christopher Rouse should expect an Oscar nomination later this week, as should Mr. Greengrass)scenes. What was a bit of a revelation is the feeling that I had just witnessed the best ever performance from 2-time Academy Award-winner, Tom Hanks. Actually, let’s put it this way—it was a very good performance for the vast majority of its running time(134 minutes, with credits). But the final 10 minutes, or so, from Mr. Hanks were absolutely extraordinary. Confession: as a former actor who worked and trained professionally for a number of years, it always galls me somewhat during awards season, when I hear every Joe Schmo and Suzy Homemaker(or Jane Schmo and Johnny Homemaker if you prefer, before I get accused of sexism)talk about what GREAT acting they saw in some prestige movie(usually referring to something that Meryl Streep did, as if she’s never capable of turning in a sub-par performance). Honestly, my usual thought is “how the fuck would they know?”. To the average audience member, Tom Hanks humping one note(credit to Pauline Kael)for two and a half hours in 1994’s “Forrest Gump”, or Dustin Hoffman doing the same in 1988’s “Rain Man” is GREAT acting. Hey, just because it’s iconic, doesn’t mean it’s stellar. However, what Tom Hanks transforms himself into, after suffering through the ordeal enacted upon him in “Captain Phillips”, is incredible work. Watch those final scenes armchair experts—that is truly magnificent performing. I was frankly amazed.

You remember the true life story of “Captain Phillips” from 2009, right? An American-based cargo ship is attacked by Somalian pirates on its way through some dangerous international waters while en route to Kenya. Captain Richard Phillips(Mr. Hanks)did manage to thwart the pirates on one occasion, but they eventually succeed in boarding and overtaking the freighter the very next day, despite the evasive tactics employed by the skipper and his crew. Most of the ship’s seamen stealthily descend into the boat’s engine room and hide undetected when the seajack begins. However, Captain Phillips and a few of his men remain on the bridge, and are physically and verbally assaulted as the heavily armed pirates demand a great deal of money. The leader of the Somalian raiders is Abduwali Muse(an exceptional Barkhad Abdi, who most likely will receive Oscar’s call come Thursday morning, as well), and after refusing a Captain’s offer of 30,000 dollars from the ship’s safe, Muse sets in motion an extensive search of the ship for the remainder of the crew. When the pirates near the engine room, a crew member cuts the lights and the invaders are attacked. The result is the wounding of two of the four, and managing to take Abduwali Muse hostage. While negotiating to have the two uninjured pirates release Captain Phillips for the now wounded Muse and a promised escape with one of the ship’s lifeboats—it appears a deal has been struck. Instead, the Somalians abduct Captain Phillips, as he tutors them on the life vessel’s operation— with the plan to trade him back for millions of dollars. But the U.S. Navy, of course, has some different ideas.

It’s admirable and essential that the screenplay of Billy Ray(headed for his first Oscar nom, a decade after penning the solid script for 2003’s “Shattered Glass”)avoids turning the Somali pirates into animalistic drones. They are given a brief back story(it could’ve been even more probing, to be fair), and are treated like conflicted individuals instead of simply gun-toting monsters. Of course, the character of Abduwali Muse, comes off the most nuanced of the bunch, thanks to the astonishing work of first-time actor, Barkhad Abdi. The opening establishing scene, introducing actress Catherine Keener in a cameo as Captain Phillips wife, is a bit heavy-handed and possibly superfluous. But once we hit the high seas, “Captain Phillips” is consistently riveting. Greengrass is in his wheelhouse here, employing many of the tactics he’s utilized in the Jason Bourne films and, especially, his lauded 2006 feature, “United 93”. There have been rumblings of inaccuracy from crew members of the actual conflict, and most of the words reflect poorly on the real Richard Phillips. Artistic embellishment has become a perpetual theme on this blog of late, but I don’t wish to belabor it here. From what I can glean on the internet, most of the key situations in “Captain Phillips” are close to how they happened—therefore making it difficult to fall into the trap of “he said, he said”. Also, it’s tough to not  empathize with the plight of the destitute pirates in this situation, and experience their paranoia as the armed forces bear down on them. Again, one desires for some more focus to be given to their desperate circumstances, but I stand by the praise that the screenplay doesn’t dismiss them out of hand. And man, that denouement with Hanks is truly something special. I was a bit caught off guard by how impressed I was by “Captain Phillips”. It’s an extremely taut and compelling adventure.     Grade:  B+

next review up:  “August: Osage County”

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