Tom Hanks brings to every movie he makes a kind of sincerity that I love to watch. He’s been type-cast, that’s true and perhaps with some reason, but to say that he cannot or does not stretch himself is simply wrong. Hanks can act.
In his new film, Captain Phillips, Hanks brings a kind of understated seriousness to the true story of Captain Richard Phillips who was in command of the M/V Maersk Alabama when it was taken by pirates off the Somali Coast. Phillips was taken hostage in the rescue boat of the Alabama and after several excruciating and tense days, was rescued by the U.S. Navy Seals.
Hanks comes into his part rarely smiling. There’s a quality in the whole film of trouble-it appears the moment the story starts in Phillips’s house in Vermont as he prepares to fly off to Oman where he will board the Alabama, taking cargo to Mumbasa. His wife and he discuss the hard economic times the country is experiencing in 2009 and how their children will manage. It’s not a tense conversation, but it is a difficult one-a precursor to the very fact that tough times mean people make tough decisions.
Meanwhile, actor Barkhad Abdi portrays the captain of the small Somali pirate squad that eventually takes over the Maersk Alabama. Four men, led by Abdi’s Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, the leader of the small group, live in a Somali village bordering on anarchy. The poverty of the place is a nightmare and the only way to earn bread for one’s family is to prove more ruthless than his neighbor. This painting of reality, brutal in its honesty is put forward without sentiment. It is what it is–they are who they are–and so the decision to board the Alabama and eventually take Phillips hostage isn’t reckless, it’s option A among a series of bad options. Abdi’s portrayal is so compelling that he too should be considered for an Oscar. “I’ve come too far,” Muse says at one point to Phillips aboard the rescue boat. “I can’t turn back now.”
The emblematic emptiness of the open sea, trapped inside a cramped and hot space is director Paul Greengrass’s triumph. Phillips, a trained cargo vessel captain, is at every moment looking for ways to take control of his own situation and while occasionally getting the upper hand, he is simply unable to overcome the odds stacked against him by four armed men aboard the rescue boat, even as he attempts to help the youngest who’s feet are badly injured from having stepped on glass aboard the Alabama.
Moments of the film are slow including the initial hours aboard the rescue boat where a great deal of give and take talking takes place. It probably didn’t need to be in there, but it’s also a chance to show the serious descending spiral of emotions and psychology among the pirate crew who simply have no choice but to challenge the world’s most powerful military. It’s in all of their eyes, Phillips’ too, that there is no way out of the situation.
The inescapable unease of understanding there are places in the world where people are forced into bad situations and outcomes can only be decided by threats and military action is enough for the audience to understand that control is an illusion. But Hanks deftly controls his own character through the chaos of harrowing and claustrophobic danger and provides a kind of earthy sympathy for all involved, without descending into sentiment for the criminal acts of the pirates.