“Captain Phillips” was both less and more than what I expected.
The story, based on real events, is simple: Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) is the captain of a freighter crossing hazardous seas. His ship is boarded by a band of four Somali pirates, he is held hostage on a lifeboat and eventually rescued by the U.S. Navy.
The spareness of the plot lends itself to a lean, stripped down movie. This is what I mean by less. The camera almost never leaves Hanks – the one main exception is scenes that establish the pirates and their motivations – and Captain Phillips is a taciturn man. There are no soaring speeches, no long exchanges between characters. The dialogue is clipped and blunt, and the action scenes are jolting. The one time we see Phillips as anything more than a ship’s captain – the opening scene where he heads to the Burlington, Vermont, airport – he and his wife are filmed from behind and their conversation centers on their worries about their son’s future. The tone is set: worry and anxiety permeate this movie.
The more is Hanks’s performance. Grey-bearded and grim, he occupies the center of the movie without dominating it. For me, the mark of a successful performance from a famous actor is when I forget I’m watching a famous actor, and that’s rare. Star vehicles like “Captain Phillips” often seem produced to fetch awards, and the movie wants you to pay attention to the amazing acting. In “Gravity,” for instance, I never forgot I was watching Sandra Bullock. Not here. The economic script, and Hanks’s muted performance, allows him to disappear into his role of a man pushed to his limits.
Captain Phillips is directed by Paul Greengrass, who made two of the Bourne movies, and it’s a good marriage between a director who eschews frills and a story that offers few. There are no real heroes here. Phillips survives his ordeal with some quick thinking – but he’s rescued by the overwhelming firepower of the U.S. Navy, and it’s clear they’re only there to save the White House from the embarrassment of an American kidnapped in Somalia.
Unlike “Black Hawk Down” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” movies with which it shares a milieu and worldview, “Captain Phillips” largely ignores the geopolitical events that set the stage. The film has sympathy for the Somalians driven to piracy, but has little time to dwell on their plight. Its focus is entirely on the struggle off the Horn of Africa, and the last hour feels like the end game of a chess match, with the few remaining pieces on the board desperately staving off the final checkmate.