When it was first announced, director Paul Greengrass' latest Captain Phillips sounded like another broad action movie that would tinker with the true events and give us Hollywood's depiction of tragedy. However, once news began spurting from the New York Film Festival, the language changed to being about the incredible performances by Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Even then, the film's major hurdle was managing to turn the life of a boat captain who gets messed up with some Somali pirates into an intense, psychological journey. The result leans more towards success than failure most of the time.
The overall appeal of Captain Phillips is that the film is of two parts. The first half is about the hijacking of Phillips' ship. The procedure in which this is done is as intense as the film gets, putting life of the crew into a haunted maze on the ocean sea. With Somali pirate leader Muse (Abdi) leading the way and threatening to kill any person who stands in his way, the kidnapping story could have been enough to make this film an intense thriller. In secluded spaces, a lot of action happens in rapid succession and soon it isn't just about dealing with pirates. It is about surviving and thinking a few steps ahead.
The second part is less successful as it goes along. Once Phillips gives into the pirates' demands, he himself is kidnapped and forced into a cramped lifeboat. Spaces become more claustrophobic and the dictatorship of Muse becomes more apparent. He doesn't want to kill Phillips, but he just wants to use him to ransom millions of dollars and eventually travel to America. There's an interesting juxtaposition in this portion in which Phillips attempts to be helpful, but the paranoid pirates refuse any advice. Instead, it is a slow decay into paranoia. With Greengrass doing patented shaky camera work, he presses the frame as close as possible onto faces to make things feel even more cramped. Even if the effect is slightly skewed due to the camera almost moving like the ocean underneath their boats, it is the film's biggest benefit. Nothing feels concrete and solid.
The part where things get less interesting is when the film has to wrap up. While it is a true story and there is some form of a happy ending, this isn't the problem. In the final moments, Hanks manages to turn in one of the more impressive moments in his acting career. His panic and cries are brought to a new sensation that he hasn't portrayed before. Even the pirates become more interesting when they take sides and start forming more human-like sympathy. However, the part that started off as their most interesting quickly evolved to their least. With the assistance of the navy, the act of rescuing Phillips comes across more as a series of trial and errors. It does benefit to see the operation, but moments feel too clinical and take away from the final impact when things are left in one of cinema's more memorable scenes this year. The film relies on showing every action that the navy did to free poor Phillips, but sometimes it just felt monotonous. There needed to be a more implicit sense of action to help tighten the already intriguing premise.
As mentioned, the best part of Captain Phillips is Hanks. Even if he gets an impressive moment that will definitely solidify him as a strong Oscar contender, his strength is in being more nuanced. He may be the hero, but he does spend a good portion of the story literally sitting in the background. There's a tenderness and desire to be helpful, even in the face of danger. It may not make things more memorable, but it makes the final payoff worthwhile. Phillips may be one of the more well-rounded performances in Hanks' career and he goes into interesting places that hopefully will be recognized.
The other big hero of the piece is Abdi, who plays Muse. His authoritative menace and stern demand of claiming "I'm the captain" almost makes him an immediate threat. He commands the screen early on and never lets go. He may at times seem too smart for his own good, but this is juxtaposed with the claustrophobic second part that allows each performer to create a more nuanced, psychologically intriguing moments. The characteristics shine and with Muse being able to command order in a room full of growing insanity is nothing short of impressive. He is the threat that makes this movie a solid thriller.
Even the camera work is pretty solid. Moving like a shark in the water most of the time, there are very few moments in which the camera is still. Greengrass is infamous for his shaky camera movements, and none more-so than in this film. Applying it to close-ups and shooting violent moments in a way that makes the camera seem squeamish, there is a personality, a sort of threat, to the way this film is executed. Despite the aggressive nature of everything, the images remain clear and the story at the central focus. He manages to turn claustrophobia into something fascinating and different just by tilting it at a Dutch angle. It may help to make it feel more like a thriller than great film making, but that is probably the nuance that makes it effective.
Captain Phillips is not an amazing film, which at times drags on. However, what is left over when all is said and done is two brilliant performances by Hanks and Abdi as well as neurotic camera movements by Greengrass. The unique anarchy that went into filming a story that feels essentially like two different types of film is somewhat of an appreciative effort. It may not be nearly as impressive or as breathtaking as Gravity, but it is interesting and fun enough to be worth the ride most of the time.
I will be upfront when I say that I never imagined that Captain Phillips would be a front runner in any category. After watching it, I still don't feel like it will be a strong contender. The result is a little bit in the middle. The film succeeds enough to be an entertaining, crowd-pleasing film that is equal parts action and psychological. It even has two great competing performances that only suffer when placed into the larger confines of the narrative's expectations. By knowing that Phillips survives, the clinical third act kind of drags and the tension sort of wanes. Not enough to derail it entirely, but enough to make me just call it a really good movie.
Let's start with the obvious. I am almost confident that Hanks is going to get major consideration come Oscar time. His final moments reflect a sincere amount of passion that is akin to Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, which proved that even the small moments are enough to make you a front runner. There is plenty to enjoy out of his performance however, even if it is mostly nuanced and often just requires human reaction. Even if I consider the hype of this being his best performance to be trite and false (films like Big, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Castaway, and even the under appreciated Cloud Atlas), it is impressive to see him still pack charisma. According to statistics website Gold Derby, Hanks is currently in fourth for the Best Actor race with odds of 15:2 behind Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Robert Redford (All is Lost) and Chiwetel Ejiofir (12 Years a Slave). While Steve McQueen's new film seems to be dominating every category, things are looking up for Hanks' chances of being nominated.
The more intriguing speculation should come with Barkhad Abdi, who is one of the definitive villains of 2013 in cinema. He may seem loose and unfocused, but his plans are not to be messed with. Much like every year, there is a good chance that this first time actor can win over the voters. In fact, Gold Derby currently has him in fifth with odds of 25:1 behind Daniel Bruhl (Rush), Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave). It seems a lot tougher to get into this category just by luck, especially since my other favorite David Oyelowo (The Butler) is slightly out of the race in seventh with odds of 33:1. It is still anyone's game, though hopefully with the rise of Hanks' performance in this film, Abdi's will be recognized as well.
The other categories seem more problematic. The issue is that I have trouble seeing Captain Phillips as nothing more than a populous piece of entertainment. Yes, it succeeds far more often than Rush, but with exception to Greengrass' oddly hypnotic style, there isn't much to really elevate it into something more associated with prestige. Even if discussing inventive camera techniques, Greengrass is going to get overlooked majorly by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), which has been having an impressive amount of consideration after my initial skepticism. According to Gold Derby, Greengrass is still in the Top 5 for Best Director at number four with odds of 12:1, which is ahead of Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), but behind David O. Russell (American Hustle), Cuaron, and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). My argument is that it is too early to set this order in stone, as I feel that Greengrass will be dropping out as soon as we see more of the contenders. However, what is more impressive is that Ron Howard (Rush) doesn't even make the Top 10 potential nominees on the page after my theory that he would be represented strongly.
In an odder note, the Best Picture race is proving to be one of Captain Phillips' stronger contention areas. While my hopeful nominee Fruitvale Station is outside the Top 10 at #12, Greengrass' film is currently in fourth with odds of 10:1 and is behind American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave. Of those, only the last two are most likely guarantees and Russell's American Hustle simply needs to be seen to be decided. I am surprised by the lack of support that Rush has gotten from Gold Derby, as it felt like a surefire thing and Captain Phillips less-so. Its fate seems funny as a result. With the sliding 5-10 scale and its current rankings, it may drop in favoring, but at this rate, Hanks will probably help the film get some serious recognition.
In a way, I am glad that so far my predictions have been proven wrong. While Rush seems to be struggling for consideration, it almost seems like Captain Phillips is getting an overbearing amount. This isn't so much an issue, especially since I feel it would be warranted as one of the better big budgeted thrillers of the year. It isn't perfect, but the intensity and placement in the field would make for an interesting mix of Best Picture nominees. It would also be funny if Barkhad Abdi lost a Best Supporting Actor nomination to another Tom Hanks performance, though at this rate, I doubt it will be as fun or compelling.
Is Captain Phillips a surefire nominee? Is this one of Tom Hanks' best? What are the odds of Barkhad Abdi getting into the race despite heavy competition from higher caliber actors?