Pair liberal Tom Hanks and the director of the progressive fantasy Green Zone and you get … an unabashedly pro-gun, pro-U.S. military adventure on the high seas.
Screenwriter William Goldman famously warned, “no one knows anything” in Hollywood, but the same holds true for what we can expect about the movies themselves.
Captain Phillips, based on the harrowing 2009 kidnapping of an American captain by Somali pirates, is the kind of sophisticated tale that proves films can still compete with the best of the small screen. What’s more, its portrayal of Navy SEALs is dignified and positive, and the film makes an effective argument for the professional use of guns.
Hanks plays Richard Phillips, the crusty captain of a container vessel bound for dangerous waters. True to fears, the ship is approached by Somali pirates, and Phillips and company have nothing but water jets to beat them back.
The pirates quickly board the ship and take Phillips hostage, while much of the crew hides down below. The pirates demand a hefty ransom, setting in motion a chess match between the four Somalis and a captain who refuses to surrender on any level
Captain Phillips immediately announces its commitment to storytelling and the minor flourishes which make a movie pop. Hanks’ captain isn’t easy to love. He’s driven by an annoying eye for details and offers weak interpersonal skills, hardly the kind of figure one assumes given the film’s title.
Who else but Hanks could take such a role and find the heroism buried beneath the character flaws?
The film serves up a back story for the four pirates, revealing their ambivalence about the task at hand. The storytelling device could have been a moral dodge, putting the pirates on a similarly righteous ground as the crew. Screenwriter Billy Ray won’t have it, showcasing the cruelty depicted by these pirates as well as their need to gnaw on a leafy stimulant known as khat.
The pirates complain to the captain that their chances for societal advancement cannot approach what America has to offer. It’s a line not meant to rally the audience toward the pirate’s side but to acknowledge reality. The pirates are given their humanity, but they aren’t handed excuses for their actions.
Ultimately, Captain Phillips illustrates the American spirit writ large. The country’s military firepower is unmatched, but in a tense standoff like the one depicted here it can act in tiny measures, all designed to avoid lost of life. When that isn’t certain, when negotiations cannot be achieved, American might will save its own.
As for Hanks, he delivers another sterling performance, making the title character as scared as anyone might be but always thinking two moves ahead to gain his freedom. The actor’s final scene is a stunner, demanding his inclusion in the Best Actor race without feeling forced.
Somali actor Barkhad Abdi holds his own with Hanks, leading his band of pirates with a combination of cocksure smarts and the knowledge that he may have taken on his last assignment.
Captain Phillips blurs the gap between crowd-pleasing entertainment and surefire Oscar contenders.