Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” is plainly one of the best films of the year. It’s the best work the director has offered to date and it features a detailed, ultimately emotional performance from Tom Hanks that is sure to draw kudos. But the big surprise is that Hanks might not even give the best performance of the film.
Prepare to hear a lot about newcomer Barkhad Abdi over the next few months. As Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, the leader of a gang of Somali pirates that laid siege to the Maersk Alabama container ship off the African coast in April 2009, Abdi — a dead ringer for the man — stands toe-to-toe with Hanks and delivers a compelling portrait. Billy Ray’s screenplay does some of the work for him, painting Muse with a few more empathetic strokes than you might expect of a film like this, but Abdi, a mild-mannered guy from Minneapolis so believable he feels like a local plucked for the production, is captivating from frame one. He could frankly be in the Best Supporting Actor conversation at the end of the day.
Indeed, this entire band of pirates, played by Barkhad Addirahman, Faysal Ahme and Mahat M. Ali alongside Abdi, dominates the film. Each actor carves a distinct and meaningful element of the story and each really should be given due credit for making “Captain Phillips” what it is. They’re treading somewhat familiar character waters but they bring a lived-in quality that pops.
The whole film is sure to be a contender across the board, not merely in the acting ranks. And at the top of the list of accomplishments is Greengrass’ crisp direction in tandem with thrilling editing from Oscar-winner Christopher Rouse. The 135-minute running time just clicks by. It’s not breakneck pacing but it feels expertly assembled, unfolding at just the right rate. Barry Ackroyd’s photography puts you right in the middle of the action while the quality of the sound design — hugely important for a film that takes place at sea — can’t be overstated. Henry Jackman’s score thrills and soars in equal measure and could also be something to watch for in an always unpredictable category.
Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re talking about “United 93” at sea, more or less, but this is an even better procedural. There’s an obvious movie star factor this time, as well as an emotional beat at the end that could have been rote but presents Hanks with an opportunity (which he seizes) to dig up something we haven’t seen from him in quite a while.
Throughout the film, Hanks’ Phillips is cool, collected, calculating, but always warm and human. It’s a controlled piece of work from the beginning, but in the character’s moment of rescue (it shouldn’t be a spoiler that Phillips made it out of there alive, and if it is, watch more news), there’s such a magic, genuine touch from the actor that the tears come. That’s how you leave the film, and that’s going to go a long way toward securing the actor some momentum in an intensely crowded category.
Tacking this on by way of response to some of the ill-considered nit-picking of embargo jumpers this morning: “Captain Phillips” has a plainly obvious theme, commenting on the rift in prosperity between American generations by reflecting it in one between first-world and third-world status quo. It’s there from the first scene, when Hanks speaks to his wife (Catherine Keener, barely in the film) about what kind of future they can expect for their children. The pirates in this film aren’t drawn with empathy for no good reason; Muse et al. do what they have to do to survive. A line from Muse in the film about being able to settle for what’s “good enough”: “Maybe in America.” Yes, but even still, for how much longer? With that in mind, the violence in the film is not “politically motivated.” It’s situationally motivated.
Another very odd assertion insinuated at a different publication is that the film is racist. If you don’t see what Abdi is doing and how Muse and his comrades’ situation is far more grey than black and white (literally), you’re not doing the heavy lifting. This guy never, not for one moment, comes off as a “mere monster.” He’s a man facing very different circumstances, certainly, than anyone in an office typing out a film review. This isn’t simply “noble white” at the hands of “insidious black,” and I think seeing that in the movie might say more about the reviewer than it does about Billy Ray’s work on the page, Greengrass’ work behind the camera and Abdi’s work in front of it.
Anyway, you might be wondering why a ton of press for the film is suddenly dropping today, almost five weeks away from release. That’s because Sony and producer Scott Rudin decided to screen the heck out of it earlier this week and offered up an embargo date right smack at the beginning of the Toronto Film Festival. It might sound familiar: three years ago, Rudin and Sony’s similarly New York Film Festival-bound “The Social Network” made a big splash in the same way and stole a little of the festival’s thunder as a result. Today is also the big premiere of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” in Toronto, which arrived as an awards frontrunner at Telluride last week. The whole thing reeks of confidence, and now that I’ve seen “Captain Phillips,” I can understand why.
So chalk up another sure-fire Oscar player right alongside “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.” This one connects. It’s a masterful, meticulous memorial to one man’s ordeal and the heroism that got him out of it. We’ll be talking about it for the rest of the year and beyond, I have no doubt.
“Captain Phillips” opens the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27. It arrives in theaters on Oct. 11.