Review: Tom Hanks grounds the emotional and upsetting ‘Captain Phillips’

There may be no filmmaker currently working in mainstream Hollywood who crafts dramatic narrative features that feel more like documentaries than traditional movies than Paul Greengrass. The way his best work plays makes the audience feel like observers of reality, and aside from one small but mystifying misstep, “Captain Phillips” represents a great example of what he does so well.

Based on the true story of a hijacking that took place off the coast of Somalia a few years ago, “Captain Phillips” stars Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips, and it’s confident, subtle work from him. His performance captures perfectly the dawning horror of the situation, and there are certain sequences here that I would place among the finest things he’s done on film so far. I love that Hanks is settling into this older stage of his career by making really interesting choices, using his still-hefty star clout to help make films that are provocative and adult and in some cases commercially difficult. Without a Hanks, there is no “Cloud Atlas,” and it’s hard to overstate how important it is for a movie like that to land a star who is both Oscar-vetted and box-office friendly.

The one sequence that didn’t work for me in “Captain Phillips” at all is, oddly, the very start of the film. As Phillips (Hanks) and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) are driving to the airport, they have a conversation that is utterly and completely phony, a tin-eared case of writing to theme, and it is such a rough, graceless scene that it actually scared me. I immediately started worrying that the script by Billy Ray (adapted from the non-fiction book written by Phillips and Stephan Talty) would be full of this sort of conversation. Ultimately, I should have had faith in both Billy Ray and Greengrass, and the rest of the film is exceptionally well-crafted. I feel like there were some thematic points they wanted to make up front, but honestly, looking at the scene, they could have lost all of the dialogue and made the same points with the visual details of the scene, especially when it’s intercut with the introductory material regarding the pirates.

The word “pirate” carries so many specific connotations and connections for us that it seems incongruous to hear it in modern times. Johnny Depp is what we think of when we think of pirates. When I’m at the Toronto film festival every year, there’s a title card warning people about not recording the films they’re watching, and every time it plays, it is greeted by a chorus of people in the audience going “Arrrrrrrrrrrr.” Pirates are a joke. Pirates are theme park attractions. Pirates are fancy hats and peg legs and parrots. They are not something we think of as a genuine threat, which is, of course, wrong. Piracy is still a very real thing in some parts of this world, and one of the things that “Captain Phillips” does so well is show us what leads people to view that as a viable choice. The film humanizes the Somali pirates that took control of the vessel that was under the control of Captain Phillips without remotely excusing their actions, not an easy balance to strike.

As with “United 93,” Greengrass fills out his ensemble with people you won’t recognize, and he gets remarkable performances out of Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali. As Muse, the leader of the team of four who end up actually taking over the ship, a cargo barge, Abdi looks like he weighs about 17 pounds, and 15 of that is just anger. Watching these four guys take over this entire barge, you can’t help but marvel at just how little it takes to disrupt what we think of as modern technology. Four guys with guns and suddenly things get very primal very quickly. There are a few familiar faces on the crew of the Maersk Alabama, but the film never slows down to do any conventional character building. This is a film where we only get to know people based on how they behave from moment to moment while caught up in this extreme circumstance, and that’s where I find the work by Billy Ray and Paul Greengrass most impressive. I’ve read a number of scripts by Ray at this point, and he’s certainly capable of conventional structure, but working like this, he does a great job of shaking loose of that and crafting something very different. I can’t imagine Greengrass would be able to work with this level of technical acuity if he didn’t have Barry Ackroyd, his cinematographer, as well as the amazing sound crew who allow him to capture things as if they are real. He makes it look easy, and it’s not. The sheer scale of what he’s staging in the film is amazing, from the military teams staging to go in and rescue Phillips to the hijacking itself, and the film seems effortlessly built.

Ultimately, what Greengrass does so well with his films is build an almost unbearable amount of tension even if you know the details of how things play out, and this certainly accomplishes that. What impressed me and felt new in this one is the way he also shows the way shock sets in after the breaking point in an incident. Hanks plays an amazing sequence at the end of the film, and I was surprised how hard it hit me emotionally. It’s because it’s something we don’t normally see, but it’s a huge part of this kind of experience. “Captain Phillips” is bold and powerful, and another excellent effort by a filmmaker who has carved out a very particular niche as a storyteller.

“Captain Phillips” opens October 11, 2013.