Friday, April 18, 2014

Phillips, Crew Driver

In the mid-90s, Tom Hanks was the Oscar King. Not only did he win back to back Best Actor awards, but every movie in which he appeared instantly picked up award buzz. His cachet subsequently faded a bit, but kicked back up last year with the one-two punch of Saving Mr. Banks and Best Picture contender Captain Phillips.

Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, the film depicts the battle of wits between the ill-prepared crew of an American shipping vessel and a desperate band of Somali pirates. Moreover, it's the clash of wills between the leaders of both groups, Abduwali Muse and the titular Richard Phillips.

The movie does run aground a bit on the problem plaguing many "based on true story" movies: it generally has difficulty generating tension because the outcome is known. But director Paul Greengrass certainly managed to overcome this when he made United 93, making him the right man for the job here. While this film is less successful on that front, it's still interesting and worthwhile for a few other reasons.

First, the script manages to take what seems like an inherently limited premise and really keep things varied and moving. The trailers for the film made it seem like it would be a long standoff on the bridge of the freighter, but this is actually only a small piece in the puzzle. In fact, the nature of the conflict changes several times throughout the story, well before the audience has time to feel any sense of stagnation.

Second, the film is buoyed by a pair of strong performances. Tom Hanks excels in the title role, though it's truly the second half of the film where he comes alive. A minor plot spoiler here, but Phillips ends up taken aboard a "life raft" by the pirates, separated from his crew and stuck on his own. This makes for a final hour where the character is slowly stripped of the confidence he once had, and culminates in a total breakdown that should have won Hanks another Oscar nomination. (Swap out Leonardo DiCaprio from the nominee list, I say.)

Then there's newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Though he has the obvious advantage of being unknown to his audience here, he nevertheless slips convincingly and completely into his role. He imbues the ostensible villain with a great deal of humanity and desperation. Though you hardly root for him to "win," you empathize with his plight. The movie does try a bit for a "there's two sides to every story" element, and to whatever degree that actually succeeds, it's owed to Abdi.

Though Captain Phillips was never thought to be a serious contender among the year's nine Best Picture nominees, it was actually among the better ones. I give it a B+.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very clever entry title. :)

And yeah, the movie was good, but not great. Ultimately lacking a little bit in scope, although they really mined everything they could out of the story.