As ‘Captain Phillips,’ Tom Hanks Gives a Tour de Force Performance

Captain Phillips is, at its heart, a thriller. There is the unhinged villain, the dramatic military rescue and, in the center trapped in the crosshairs, our hero, Captain Rich Phillips. And while director Paul Greengrass doesn’t do much to elevate the film above that of a generic thriller, no one told Tom Hanks. Hanks does some of his most impressive acting work here, completely disappearing into his role as Rich Phillips, the New England freighter captain who became a household name when four Somali pirates held him captive in a lifeboat for five days in April 2009.

The film opens dully as Phillips prepares for a trip at sea. We get a brief cameo from the tragically underused Catherine Keener who plays Phillips’ wife and then he’s off. That scene is quickly juxtaposed with one at a village in Somalia. A local warlord demands tribute and, just like that, Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his team are off as well. It’s clear that Greengrass was attempting to compare the various ways in which our seemingly opposite worlds are the same, that all the players in this story are simply pawns of a larger entity (either a corporation or a warlord). It’s a thrilling concept; unfortunately Greengrass drops the metaphor the second the pirates board the Maersk Alabama.

Muse and his ragtag band of pirates are almost immediately in over their heads. They are routinely outsmarted by relatively simple trickery and a well-trained crew. Greengrass’ signature handheld camera style creates a frantic tension here, though heightening tension is probably small fish for a director with two Bourne franchise films under his belt.

But it’s not until the pirates take Phillips hostage aboard the Alabama’s tiny submarine-like lifeboat that film really gets going. While Billy Ray’s screenplay is based on Phillips’ own memoir, it would be impossible to recreate the exact events on that boat. What Ray has imagined is a terrifying mad dash to the Somali shore as the U.S. Navy closes in on Phillips and his captors. Phillips and the pirates’ interactions are alternately hostile, enlightening and tender. We see here some glimpses of the film’s initial promise; the pirates are revealed as fisherman by trade who were forced into a life of crime as a side-effect of globalization, fished out of their own waters by multinational corporations. But we’re never given quite enough to create some shades of grey between good and bad. The story remains a tale of American might and American victory, all others be damned.

For Phillips, there are no allies to talk to, nowhere to go. Hanks rises to this challenge, delivering a striking performance delivered almost completely through his eyes. It’s the kind of subtle emotion that legendary performances are made of. Trapped in a game of cat and mouse with the U.S. military, the mission will almost surely end in his death and Hanks goes through the stages of grief with a gut-wrenching quietness. But Hanks really earns his keep in the film’s final 10 minutes. To avoid a trip to spoilerville, suffice it to say that Hanks reacts to almost immeasurable trauma in a way that reads as emotionally honest without becoming melodramatic. It’s a truly impressive feat.

But for all his hard work, something about Captain Phillips feels disconnected, fragmented. There was a chance to make a statement here. About a world that forced four dirt-poor Somalians into a suicide mission. About a society that values military might over philanthropic deeds. About anything. Instead we got a based-on-a-true-story thriller about a man trapped in a boat, completely cut off from the world, completely cut off from all context.