Thursday, October 17, 2013

Captive Audience

There are people out there who do not think that Captain Richard Phillips is a hero. After the events which saw his ship, the cargo-hauling Maersk Alabama, captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia and Phillips additionally being taken hostage when the four pirates were forced to abandon the ship in a lifeboat, a soon-to-be rescued Phillips was hailed as heroic, facing the worst that the third world had to offer and coming out alive. But while feature film Captain Phillips, from by Green Zone and The Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass, was getting ready for theaters, many people spoke out about their perception of recklessness in Phillips. This came most notably in a lawsuit from over half of his Alabama crew, claiming that the erstwhile hero knew well and good that the ship would be traveling through pirate-infested waters and did little or nothing to minimize the potential for its capture until it was too late.So how will this film portray him? Will he be shown as a hero or an idiot? Would we even get an answer to that question anywhere in Greengrass' film?

Yup, Hanks' return to "Oscar Season" is about upon us.
As Captain Phillips is ostensibly based on Phillips' own book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea", the former option seems to be the most likely. After all, it would hardly be sporting to take the base source of your material and dump it in the trash. Sure, World War Z did it, but that was based on a work of fiction, and had special effects to take your mind off the wasted potential.When presenting real life situations, it's often better to stick to the known facts, although a good director will weave in elements of fantasy to make the narrative more entertaining to audiences (Argo is a perfect example). Such seems to be the case with this movie, in which Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) sails his cargo ship around the Horn of Africa, only to see the Alabama hijacked by Somali pirates led by Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (Barkhad Abdi). With most of the crew hiding and military assistance too far away to be of immediate help, the only man standing between four desperate men and the safety of the men under his command is Phillips.
Thankfully, this is not a romantic comedy.
Fortunately (and we shouldn't be surprised by a professional like Greengrass) the film is nowhere near as sycophantic as it could have been. Richard Phillips is definitely not portrayed as an heartless or reckless, but a smart man dedicated to doing his job as it is presented. The movie shows that he is aware of the potential pirate threat, and he did actually take steps to try and prevent such hijackings from taking place. Greengrass seems to state that such an attack would have been inevitable, given the circumstances, which was almost certainly Phillips' opinion. However, that doesn't mean he thinks Phillips is all that great a guy; as a Captain, he's more than a bit of a taskmaster, and doesn't exactly have the best people skills when it comes to the crew; his confrontations with the crew are essentially one-sided, and are moot as he's chief on the boat. It makes for an orderly ship, but not one in which the crew will appreciate the man in charge. At first glance, casting Tom Hanks in the role of such a relatively gray character seems a bit strange, but while the actor is perhaps better known for his "good guy" persona in charismatic role, we often forget how multi-talented Hanks actually is. Just look at The Road to Perdition or Cloud Atlas if you need any reminding; Hanks is not only a better actor than you might think, but here puts forth one of his most compelling performances in decades. Everybody knows he won an Oscar for playing Forrest Gump, but not many remember that he also won for Philadelphia for playing an everyman. It seems unlikely at this point (it's still to early to know who will be in the Best Actor conversations just yet), but it's possible he could win another one here. If he misses it, it certainly won't be for lack of trying.
...And then there's this guy.
But the real treat of Captain Phillips might be Abdi as the leader of the pirate crew. Making his theatrical debut, the Somali-American actor is given a lot of support and material from Greengrass available to him, and he makes the most of the opportunity presented. It helps that the role is not entirely villainous; in fact, Abdi plays a character strikingly similar to that of Phillips, a man under scrutiny from his superiors to complete a given job. Granted, his (probably not chosen) career is piracy, but the similarities between Phillips and Muse are made apparent from the get-go, and make for great interactions between the two. Additionally, Abdi proves elegant in his speech; though he often repeats the same line ("Everything gonna be okay"), the way in which his inflection changes perfectly matches the tone for the scene. Though on looks alone he'll never be leading man material, Abdi proves a fantastic surprise this year.
How thoughtful to provide showers out here.
And it helps that Greengrass is at his artistic best. Captain Phillips' narration is so smooth and full of suspense that it doesn't matter that we know how it all ends. Phillips is captivating, perfectly paced and without the missteps of the director's previous effort Green Zone, which glossed over character development and regressed into an action-packed farce of its original intentions. Yes, there are moments that feel a little forced, from an opening scene between Phillips and his wife (played by Catherine Keener) about how different the world is today, to a late-film conversation between Phillips and Muse in which the hostage suggests to his stonewalled captor that maybe kidnapping isn't the best alternative. Muse's response? "Maybe in America." The audience is well aware by this point under just how much pressure Muse is, so reiterating the point that there are people worse off in the world than us is a bit of overkill.
"Congratulations! You won!"
Despite these minor nuisances, they don't take away from the the sheer success that Captain Phillips is on the big screen. Excellently acted, perfectly assembled and more tense than you would ever expect, Greengrass has created one of the year's best movies, while not taking sides in the controversies surrounding the story. While it's not as good as Argo, it takes up that title's mantle as the "based on a true story" spectacular for 2013. Whether or not you consider Richard Phillips a hero, this interpretation of that fateful 2009 event is definitely worth a couple hours of your time. To miss out on this would be doing yourself a disservice as we approach the end of the year.

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