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My Oscar quest continues with the third Best Picture nominee: Captain Phillips. How did this stack up against American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave? How Hanksian does Mr. Hanks get? Do we get the best Supporting Actor performance of the year here? Read on for my 8 cents.


At what point does instinct kick in and override one’s natural fear or paralysis in a dangerous situation? Will our natural, primal selves always jump to the forefront when our lives are in danger or is that a pump that needs to be constantly primed? What about when we’re responsible for the lives of others? At what point does our psyche separate the need to fulfill one’s duty with the inherent need to survive? And what happens to our “normal” selves if we do manage to make it past the crisis? Is there ever an easy way to return to the “same-old-same-old” after that?

Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips (2013) has several things on its plate but this notion of personal sacrifice in the face of turmoil is certainly one of them. Almost as vital (perhaps more so, depending on how you look at it), however, is a storytelling-related issue: what factors truly make someone a “villain” versus a “victim of circumstance”? When a “bad guy” looks in the mirror, does he see a “bad guy” looking back or is that notion only reserved for whoever is directly opposing him? The film makes a pointed and very powerful assertion: if we could truly look behind the scenes and see the various factors at play in any conflict or confrontation, it would become very difficult to assign any measure of blame. This is heady stuff, particularly in a film about Somali pirates capturing an American ship. That the film manages to place this notion in the forefront of audiences’ minds while still being a rip-snortingly tense action film gives a pretty good notion as to why Captain Phillips found itself on the year-end shortlist.

Captain Phillips is the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship captained by the titular individual (played by Tom Hanks). We see a little of his family life (loving wife, grown kids) and a little of his work ethic (stern but friendly boss, detail-oriented) before he’s taken command of the Alabama and set sail. While on the open seas, the ship strays from the safer, more packed sea routes and into an area patrolled by Somali pirates. Sure enough, Phillips and his crew end up in the crosshairs of Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his pirate crew. After a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase, the pirates board the Maersk Alabama, forcing Phillips to use all of his wits, charm and nautical knowledge to keep his crew safe and defuse the situation. Once the U.S. Navy and the Seals get involved, however, the whole enterprise becomes even more dangerous and convoluted, hurtling everyone towards a potentially explosive and violent end.

In order to get a sense of the overall feel of Captain Phillips, it helps to examine director Greengrass’ other films: he was the man behind The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), as well as the 9/11 film United 93 (2006) and the Matt Damon-starring action film Green Zone (2010). In most of these films, Greengrass combines a keen sense of action and tension (much of which unfolds so quickly that it seems to be happening in real-time) with subtle (sometimes, not so much) critiques of the U.S. war/espionage complex. While Captain Phillips only touches briefly on the war aspect (the battleship that intervenes and the Seal team) and not at all on the espionage side, American policies end up being a key part of the rationale behind the actual attack. At one point, Muse tells Phillips that he and the other pirates are actually fishermen but foreign commercial fishermen have emptied their seas, leaving them with no way to earn a livelihood.

In fact, this idea that the Somali pirates are not, in effect, terrorists but rather normal human beings put in a completely untenable position, is the aspect of Captain Phillips that truly sets it apart. Imagine if Die Hard went out of its way to establish the terrorists as fundamentally decent people who need to hold their hostages in order to provide for their families. In a typical Hollywood film, this tact would naturally lead one to assume that the John McClane character would, by default, need to become the bad guy. Captain Phillips upends this notion by making the captive captain just as much of a down-to-earth guy as the desperate pirates. The pirates are hijacking the ship because a local Somali warlord will gun down their families if they don’t: Phillips is doing everything he can to keep he and his crew safe, so that they can return to their own families. If there are any real “bad guys” in the film, they’re probably the foreign fishing interests that have conspired to create this situation in the first place.

In fact, my biggest overall complaint about Captain Phillips is that the film doesn’t spend nearly enough time with the Somalis: more scenes from their village or the pirate mother-ship would have fleshed out their characters even more and given ample opportunity to contrast their lives with the American crew. As it is, the film plays as more of a fast-paced action film, bookended by mundane opening and emotional finale. There nothings inherently wrong with that approach: in many ways, Captain Phillips is the smartest action film to come out in quite some time, perhaps ever. If one were to cut out all of the non-hijacking related footage, you would be left with an extremely lean, mean, tough little film, something that’s definitely closer in feel to the Bourne films.

As such, however, the film provides me with a bit of a head-scratcher: is a film that is, essentially, an action film (even if an extremely well-made action film) really the best film of the year? Since the film seems to lean much heavier on the action versus the dramatic sequences, I certainly feel it’s fair to characterize it as such. I’ve only seen three of the nominees, thus far, but Captain Phillips certainly doesn’t seem like a better overall film than 12 Years a Slave, even if it’s undeniably more fun. Hanks, in particular, struck me as slightly off. At first, I was rather annoyed with his performance: it seemed too “Hanksian,” at the beginning, an impression not helped by the tediously expository dialogue. Note to screenwriters: as a rule, married couples don’t usually take the time to remind each other that they have children, especially grown children, unless they’re really trying to let the audience know. In fact, the script often felt like it got in the way of Captain Phillips truly taking off: much of the non-action scenes have the same overly expository feel of the opening, as if the filmmakers wanted to make sure that the audience didn’t miss any pertinent information. It’s an obvious, if slightly irritating trick, and it makes the film’s Best Adapted Screenplay nomination feel a bit odd.

Much has also been made of the fact that golden boy Tom Hanks was snubbed on a Best Actor nod, despite being such a massive presence in the film. To be honest, this made a lot of sense to me: Hanks’ performance gets steadily better and more emotional as the film progresses, culminating in a pretty powerful moment at the end, but there’s a lot of dead air there, too. In particular, much of his performance in the film’s first third seems forced and…well…”Hanksian.” Things get radically better once he ends up on the lifeboat with the four pirates but it’s (occasionally) a slog to get there.

What makes complete sense, however, is newcomer Barkhad Abdi, as Muse the defacto pirate captain. Abdi is a revelation, an actor so natural and subtle, yet so gifted at communicating small emotions with just his eyes and face, that he (essentially) wipes the floor with everyone else, including Hanks. Abdi’s performance never seemed like acting and he had a number of truly heartbreaking moments. I’ve only seen three of the five nominated Best Supporting Actor performances but Abdi’s is easily the best, completely outshining Fassbinder in 12 Years and edging out Cooper’s perm in American Hustle by virtue of its searing honesty.

Ultimately, I wanted more of Abdi’s Muse. The film may be about the things that happened to Captain Phillips but it strains to be so much more. With more of an emphasis on the pirates’ home-life (this is the rare film that could have been at least 30-45 minutes longer than it actually was), Captain Phillips may have been a complete classic. As it stands, however, Greengrass and company have managed to craft one absolutely thrilling action film with just enough of a socially conscious heart to stand out from the pack. Is it the best film of the year? Probably not. Is it good enough to be considered? Absolutely.