Hanks a driving force as ‘Captain Phillips’

By Karsten Burgstahler

2013 is quickly becoming the year of the singular performance. Last week Sandra Bullock fought for survival in “Gravity” and next week Robert Redford plays a man trapped on a fishing boat in “All is Lost.”

Both of these performances are on the Oscar radar, and so is this week’s entry into the survival genre — Tom Hanks as the title character “Captain Phillips” (Rated PG-13, 134 Min.). While Hanks is rarely alone, he is tasked with carrying the movie. Richard Phillips was the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that was hijacked off the coast of Somalia in early 2009. The movie spends very little time on Phillips as a developed character and more on him as survivalist, a move that strips the film bare. In fact, that seems to be the movie’s main problem — although director Paul Greengrass brings his impressive action pedigree to the project, he doesn’t present the human element to its fullest extent.

“Phillips” does boast an impressive performance from Hanks as the captain. His crew does not get much screen time, so he is isolated with the pirates for at least half of the movie. The pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), attack the ship in an attempt to ransom it to the American government. The 20 minutes in which the pirates come aboard and search the ship for the crew are among the tensest moments at the movies this year. Greengrass didn’t introduce Hanks and Abdi before they filmed this scene, a smart move that adds authenticity to Hanks’ actions.


We get one scene of Muse and his crew on land, enough to develop their desperation but not enough to really make the audience care. That’s unfortunate, because Billy Ray’s screenplay relies on the audience sympathizing with these hijackers during the film’s third act. The pirates take Phillips hostage in a lifeboat, forcing the U.S. Navy to negotiate. Phillips and the pirates get quite a bit of time to interact, during which Ray allows the pirates to meditate on their desperation. The words do not really stick, but their actions do. As the small group aboard the lifeboat argue over whether or not to let the Navy in, the characters become more and more crazy until the explosive climax.

In the same way Alfonso Cuaron brought his signature long shots to “Gravity,” Greengrass’ signature shaky camera works here to make the audience feel seasick. As the boat bobs up and down so does the camera, a technique that adds authenticity to the film. But because the camera is cooped up in the lifeboat for a good portion of the movie, some of the scenes become repetitive. Greengrass could have cut about 10 minutes out of the movie to tighten it up a bit.

This is meant to be a star vehicle for Hanks, and in that respect the movie works perfectly. Although Phillips is not given much time to develop as a character beyond the opening scene where he says goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener, in what amounts to a cameo), his struggle to survive feels authentic. As the tension builds we get to see him break down, and Hanks never goes over the top — he is always believeable. He proves why he is still one of the greatest working actors, even if some of his movies are duds.

“Captain Phillips” is a strong adventure film, even if it does not reach the impressive heights of “Prisoners” and “Gravity.” If the script had provided more background into the characters, it would have been easier to connect with the action. Even so, it is a smart action film that doesn’t mess with the audience as it delivers powerhouse performances and writing all around. 4 out of 5 stars.

Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at [email protected] or 536-3311 ext. 261.