2013 seems to be the year of survival stories. From Gravity to All is Lost and here with Captain Phillips the one man (or woman) against the world scenario is rich and in full effect.
The hijacking of the U.S. container ship the Maersk Alabama in April of 2009 was big news, with a major military undertaking and whose details are well documented. In the capable hands of director Paul Greengrass (United 93) knowing the outcome of this story doesn’t temper its suspense and general terror one bit. It’s a breath-taking cat-and-mouse thriller with a superb central performance from Tom Hanks as well as from newcomer Barkhad Abdi.
On the shores of Somalia, local warlords demanding money, a local tax if you will, from the gaunt, khat-addicted fishermen-turned-pirates there, persecute an impoverished village. These young men hijack small vessels but don’t garner enough cash for their bosses so they hunt for bigger fish in the sea. Like a school of sharks they spot the Maersk Alabama, alone from the pack of cargo ships along the African coast and make their way for healthy payday in beat up skiffs with rundown outboard motors. Heading these teams are two men at odds with each other, deliberate and cautious Muse (the excellent Barkhad Abdi) and loose cannon Najee (Faysal Ahmed). This is a relationship destined for clashes.
With uncanny timing, Captain Phillips, a stickler for duty and detail, coordinates a pirate drill for his crew. The crew is lackadaisical and walks through the motions without much urgency. Just moments later the two Somali skiffs appear on his radar and his drill becomes a real world scenario. But the skiffs’ outboard motors fail them and they are forced to fall off. For the crew of the Alabama it’s only going to be a temporary reprieve. After some infighting on their mother boat, the men trek out again, this time on a single craft.
The measures of the Alabama fail and the pirates board the vessel. The majority of the crew takes cover in the engine room while Phillips and his main cabin crew stay in the control room to face the attackers. The meeting is a frenetic, terrifying clash. When Muse looks into Captain Phillips’s face and says, “Look at me, look at me. I’m the captain now,” it’s hard not to be chilled to the bone by his confidence and delivery. Ironically, with a cargo largely of food and water for Africa, Phillips offers the men the $30,000 in the ship’s safe. “What do I look like, a beggar?” says Muse. Pirates hijacking U.S. ships for ransom is the game at play here, not pocket change.
Phillips and his crew are able to stave off the pirates as they run around the humungous ship, cutting power off, leaving broken glass for a barefoot pirate to be injured by. But this only raises tensions and tempers. The crew manages to take Muse hostage as he searches for them on his own. A captain for captain trade-off is organized with Phillips offering the pirates the initial $30,000 plus safe passage via the zone-cone orange mechanical lifeboat. But, the trade-off goes awry and they kidnap Phillips anyway, plunging the lifeboat into the ocean. Phillips tries his best to placate the pirates and to relate to them on as human a level as possible. But the close quarters prove simply too much and infighting plus the presence of the U.S. Navy create a maelstrom of violence and brutality waged against Phillips by the hothead Najee.
There is something eerie about the final act of Captain Phillips. With Greengrass as its director it’s difficult to not make a comparison to United 93’s final act of the passengers fighting for their lives against their attackers. Granted, these are two very different situations in that in United 93 we’re seeing a possibility of events, conjecture even. In Captain Phillips the main participant, the eyewitness, came through this experience alive to tell the story. But there is symmetry between the two films, and weirdly almost provides a closure of events. It also provides Hanks with arguably some of his finest work to date. Being such an easy everyman makes Hanks’s Phillips incredibly relatable and sympathetic and his transition from screaming for his life and apologizing to his family for being in this situation to the pure and abject shock upon his rescue shows us just how strong an actor Hanks is. It’s a near-perfect performance.
This is a film with a potential for a very healthy Oscar nomination haul. Tom Hanks’s final act moments alone makes him a clear and easy nominee as he does some of his best and most diverse work. Greengrass, a nominee for United 93 is also in the running. Despite the difficulty Sony/Columbia sometimes has getting into the Best Picture race, as Jonathan Boehle’s article details, this is a strong Best Picture possibility. Having Scott Rudin as your producer doesn’t hurt; he’s just behind Harvey Weinstein in that department. Much has made of a potential Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barkhad Abdi but I’m not seeing it, yet. Yes, he’s going to Q&A’s with Hanks and Greengrass and it’s a very good and nuanced performance, but it’s a pretty jammed category, one that also includes Tom Hanks for Saving Mr. Banks. The sound, editing and cinematography (from Oscar nominee Barry Aykroyd) are also highly likely.