NYFF Review: A Career-Best Tom Hanks Performance Anchors the Intense, Thrilling "Captain Phillips"

The New York Film Festival premieres the year's most intense maritime thriller.


Director: Paul Greengrass
Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed
Running time: 132 minutes
Score: 9/10

The intensity in Captain Phillips—as in all of director Paul Greengrass' films (e.g, United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Supremacy)—with their you-are-there, handheld camera realism and airtight pacing—is paramount throughout, yet the final five minutes are what really sell it as a surefire candidate for any and all "best of 2013" lists. To go into detail on what happens in those five minutes would, of course, mean establishing residence in unwelcome spoiler territory, but know this much: The film's closing scene could, whenever his career's over, rank as star Tom Hanks' greatest acting achievement. Lest that all seem like overcooked hyperbole, let's take it a step further into the hyperbolic—it's enough to forgive Hanks for Larry Crowne (2011).

The reason why the closing moment hits with so much emotional force is twofold: Greengrass directs everything that comes before it with a mighty fine, unwavering balance of visceral intensity and character-guided heart, and Hanks gives such a knockout performance, one powered by his combustible chemistry with first-time actor, and Somali-born American, Barkhad Abdi, that the payoff is draining as it is cathartic. Captain Phillips is fast-paced, two-plus-hours workout for both the heart and the heart rate. Once it's over, you'll forget all about his half-baked Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons (2008).

You see where we're going with this. Shots fired toward the brutally over-melodramatic Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) are tempting to take here, but ultimately overkill.

It just feels good to see Hanks in another four-star live-action movie (the Toy Story franchise, forever), which nearly happened last year with the crazily ambitious sci-fi spectacle Cloud Atlas, if only not for the fact that Hanks' segments alongside Halle Berry are the film's weakest link. He's the best thing about Captain Phillips, though, given a real-life character of great resolve and heart-tugging fortitude to play. Based on commercial shipping captain Richard Phillips' non-fiction book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at the Sea (co-written by Stephen Talty), Captain Phillips wastes little time with build-up or expositional set-ups—Phillips (Hanks) is en route to Kenya on the Maersk Alabama with massive amounts of cargo, along with his crew, when four armed Somali pirates interrupt their trip and demand money and whatever precious bounties they can score. Dressed in near rags and motivated by lowest-common-denominator survival, not cold-blooded evilness, the pirates are led by Muse (Abdi), a power-tripping shotcaller who thrives on the realization that he, for once, is in charge—the oppressed becomes the oppressor. "Irish," as he refers to Phillips, must relinquish his powers to Muse, and even more so when the pirates take Phillips hostage on one of the Alabama's lifeboats.

Abdi's performance is a revelatory case of an unknown actor nearly stealing a movie away from his superstar colleague, not unlike how newcomer Lupita Nyong'o overpowers Michael Fassbender on more than one occasion in 12 Years a Slave (worth a mention here because Abdi and Nyong'o are two names you could be hearing a lot of come time for Best Supporting debates in awards season's polls). Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray smartly blur the film's moral ambiguity, always making clear who the antagonists are (guns pointed in Tom Hanks' million-dollar face will have that effect) but never portraying the Somali pirates as malevolent hell-bringers. They're obviously going about their goal to provide finances for their impoverished homeland wrongly, but their options are limited, and Abdi and his co-stars (fellow acting novices Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahet M. Al). "There's gotta be something more than being a fisherman and a kidnapper," says Phillips during one pivotal scene. "Maybe in America, Irish," responds Muse. "Maybe in America."

With his characters' individual drives all clearly defined, Greengrass is able to do what he does best: direct the ever-living hell out of grandiose but naturalistic (meaning: zero CGI) action sequences, of which Captain Phillips has many. The pirates' initial sieging of the Maersk Alabama is an early showstopper, putting the Somalis' minuscule skiff up against the cargo ship's pressurized water jets—it's a David vs. Goliath chase scene executed with maximum adrenaline. A film of two distinct stylistic halves, Captain Phillips begins with the Alabama's expansive set but turns much more intimate once the pirates and Phillips head off inside the claustrophobic lifeboat. Eventually the tiny boat comes within a football's toss away from a U.S. Naval destroyer, and by that time Greengrass' tightly compressed shots convey the all-around desperation, through facial close-ups that emphasize Phillips and his captors' dirty and sweat exteriors and effectively nausea-inducing camerawork that puts you into the dingy with them, bouncing waves, wakes, and all.

Perhaps one of the greatest compliments to give Greengrass is the the 132-minute Captain Phillips feels much shorter than that. Per usual for Greengrass, there's a swift and unrelenting sense of urgency here, comparable to that of United 93 but expanding upon that similarly real-time white-knuckler's scope. Greengrass' breathless, kinetic sensibility is a god-send for Hanks—prior to Captain Phillips, the nearly three-hour Cloud Atlas seemed like a Bosom Buddies episode next to Hanks' self-directed, unfunny 99-minute slog Larry Crowne.

Nailing the nightmarish combination of fear and desperation and the always-thinking resolve that Richard Phillips surely needed to stay alive, Hanks uses Greengrass' directorial energy to help supercharge his performance. Not a single performance beat is missed, particularly in that previously mentioned final scene, for which Greengrass stabilizes his usually on-the-move camera and captures a post-traumatic release that's honest and guttural. It's the kind of scene that Academy Award telecasters must salivate over, in how it's perfectly suited as a nomination's accompanying on-air clip. Except that, thankfully, there's nothing artificial or calculated about it.

Captain Phillips premiered as the opening night film of the 2013 New York Film Festival (NYFF).

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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