(Photo : Columbia Pictures)
In 2009, the world was left in suspense as the US Navy conducted a rescue mission for an American cargo ship that had been boarded by Somalian pirates and held hostage. That story is now being brought to lilm by filmmaker Paul Greengrass, a director known for such works as "The Bourne Supremacy," "The Bourne Ultimatum," and "United 93" amongst others. His latest film "Captain Phillips," which stars Tom Hanks in the lead role, is undoubtedly one of the most hotly anticipated of the year and has been receiving a tremendous amount of awards buzz. But does it deliver?
Richard Phillips (Hanks) is the captain of a cargo ship that is set to take a route through the dangerous waters of the African coast. On the Somalian coast lives Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), a local fisherman that decides to join in pirating due to the financial chaos he is enduring. Muse and his crew of four eventually board Phillips' ship and a fight for survival ensues.
Adapting real life to the cinema is not a new phenomenon. However, Greengrass' approach has always had a documentary vibe to it (many refer to his style as "docudrama") that adds a layer of authenticity to the events unfolding. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd is constantly roaming about, searching for new ways to follow the action; however, it is never intrusive or self-conscious. Take the final sequence inside of a life boat. The space is clearly limited and in the hands of a different director, would likely have gotten repetitive in the shot selection. Greengrass and Ackroyd vary the angles throughout, positioning themselves from as many vantage points as possible to include all the characters' perspectives; however, there is always a sense of reality in the shot selections that never takes away from the action at hand. There is never a single overhead shot or a long dolly track within the safety boat; those kinds of images, while artful would pull the viewer out of the reality of the space and situation. This "invisible" filmmaking makes the viewer feel as if he/she were experiencing real life in its most direct and pure manner.
More importantly is how Greengrass tackles the material and its socio-political and moral implications. The director has never shied away from questioning the actions of those in power as evidence by such films "Green Zone" and "Bloody Sunday.". More importantly, Greengrass does not paint his characters with a broad brush; every character is filled with details that enhance the complexity at hand. The opening sequence is particularly powerful in this sense; it features Phillips and his wife Andrea (Catherine Kenner) driving to the airport. From their conversation about the future of their sons, Greengrass hints at the difficulties of the then-struggling US economy; he also helps establish Phillips as a caring family man that anyone can relate to. Moments later, the film cuts half-way across the world to a disheveled town in Somalia. Whereas the Phillips sequence featured a rather steady camera and refined cutting, the imagery is grated and unstable and the editing is jagged throughout the Somalia sequences. A group of warlords arrive in the town and bully the local townspeople. In the midst of all this, Greengrass places great emphasis on Muse. Moments later he is picking his crew amidst a massive crowd of prospective mates. In just a few minutes Greengrass has established the contrasting worlds of the two characters and their motivations for their forthcoming actions. Muse and his crew are not vilified, but instead Greengrass and his actors work hard to humanize and create empathy for them.
Hanks is the star of the show and gives one of the finest performances of his career as the middle-aged captain. Despite his seeming vulnerability during the opening sequence with his wife, Hanks makes Phillips an imposing presence while on the ship. In his first sequence on board, Hanks moves about and hands out orders with stern and fluid manner that showcases his authoritaty. More powerful is how he behaves during the two pirate attacks; his calm and collected manner inspires tremendous confidence in the viewer. Inevitably, the character's trials and tribulations break him down, but it is Hanks' inner battle to remain strong that proves to be the most powerful aspect. Even as he gets a gun pointed at him, Hanks' character remains firm and refuses to let his emotions reach their boiling point. The final moments of the film are probably the ones that most will remember and rightfully so. Those familiar with the final scene of Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" will find a similar emotional connection with how Hanks and Greengrass deliver the material and the emotional catharsis they create. This scene, which Greengrass has repeatedly lauded, may prove to be one of the defining moments of Tom Hanks' legendary acting career.
With such a major star like Tom Hanks in the lead role, Greengrass was tasked with finding a Somalian actor capable of matching him move for move in this suspense thriller. Abdi proves to be the suitable match in his film debut. A lot could have gone wrong for the young actor as it would have been all too easy to showcase the pirate Muse as a villain. But Abdi's thin frame coupled with his subdued, even dignified, manner creates a tremendous amount of vulnerability that makes it hard to despise him. Abdi remains quiet for great portions of the film and the close-ups of him reveal the portrait of a confused person that realizes that he has gotten himself into a mess that he cannot get out. His emotions start to get the best of him, and like Phillips and the rest of the crew, he loses control as the film progresses toward its stunning climax.
The remainder of the cast performs admirably, but Faysal Ahmed stands out as the pirate Najee. Ahmed's portrayal of Najee is the counterpoint to Abdi's Muse. Whereas Muse is small and thin, Najee is strong and imposing. Whereas Muse is calm and thoughtful, Najee is explosive. Ahmed manages to create a tremendous menace that becomes increasingly dangerous as the film develops. Despite being the most "villainous" character in the entire film, Najee is able to create a character that comes off as a desperate man who has worked hard to save his own livelihood and is unwilling to give up when the goal comes within reach.
Does Captain Phillips deliver? Absolutely. The film's final moments are among the most powerful in film this year and will probably stir some palpable emotion from audience members. Hanks and Abdi are at the top of their respective games and Greengrass delivers, arguably, the greatest film of his career.