Captain Phillips reminds me of a lot of things, and brings to light other things we take for granted. It is a reminder that Tom Hanks is always brilliant, and when paired with an equally brilliant director they can do no wrong. Here, Hanks and director Paul Greengrass bring intrigue and excitement to a story in which we already know the end. It was a trick pulled off by both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, but which here is accomplished with heightened visceral flourishes, and a more immediate sensibility.
Hanks, of course, is always good. He is never bad. In Captain Philips he starts off with that expected good, and in his last scene we are reminded once again of his ability to astound. The performance as a whole is Oscar-worthy, but the last scene will win it for him.
The film also reminds me of why I love cinema. To be sucked completely into a film is a rarity in world of so many distractions; and the quality of movies as of late resort to clichés we’ve seen too many times, and pointless plot pieces and asides that serve only to remove the viewer from the filmmaker’s world. That is not the case here. The movie starts with Phillips and ends with him. Any cut-aways are in support of his current action. That is the key term: current action. We aren’t interested in what happened to him before this situation*, and we aren’t interested in the worries of his family, or anything of the sort. The film remains focused on the present and the resolution of a dangerous situation.
That resolution comes about – as we all know going into it – via the hand of the United States Navy. The way this part of the plot is seamlessly woven into the narrative without grandiose shots and pomp is a hallmark of films by Paul Greengrass. While there are some sweeping shots, they aren’t gratuitous, and they do not distract. Greengrass knows what information we can absorb in the simplest of shots, and relies on music that sets moods, only leaning on rousing musical themes when absolutely necessary so that they may be used to their fullest effect.
The level of sophistication and professionalism brought to the table by the Navy under such extreme duress is a watermark towards which we should all aspire (just a note: I suspect many of the naval personnel were actual naval personnel – another hallmark of Greengrass is using non-actors). Juxtapose this against the poor, sloppily organized (though not without ingenuity), Somali pirates, and there quickly comes an appreciation for the language and sophisticated thought of the first world. Not that the Somali pirates were depicted as savages. Yes, they are scary – they are, after all, pirates with machine guns – but Greengrass paints them as human beings. While I felt the danger of their presence I also felt sorry for them. Not because I knew their fate in this scenario, but because their fate was probably sealed long before they undertook this mission.
Considering this, and how people of the first world often fall short of the sophisticated thought and language of which we are capable, I felt ashamed. There are people in the United States just as mis-guided as these Somali pirates; there are American citizens, right now, that are wrapped up in a world – be it gang, drug, or religiously bound – which they think is real and finite because they cannot see beyond it. It’s a reminder that bondage exists everywhere, and is a problem from which no culture, no matter how sophisticated, is safe. These final musings aren't on the surface of the film, of course; they're just thoughts I've had while writing this, which brings me to the last reminder: the greatest power of art is its ability to provoke thought through simplicity, which is precisely what Paul Greengras has done here.
Oscar Nomination Predictions:
Best Actor – Tom Hanks
Best Supporting Actor – Barkhad Abdi
A nod for editing is a lock, and the win is probably even odds, 2-1, at worst. A nod for Barkhad Abdi is a much longer shot, maybe 50-1. But, my case for him is this: even though he is a villain (by role) he plays the part with tenderness and apprehensive brutality. He brings swagger and coolness to it (or what a Somali pirate might see as “cool”), as well as a pitiful naivety. It is a performance that should not be overlooked. Hanks could win, but he’s likely up against Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave, and Robert Redford for All is Lost. Greengrass has only one other nomination, for United 93, another brilliant film, but one I was only willing to endure a single time due to its content. With Captain Phillips I wanted to go right back into the theater. Greengrass could still win without the Best Picture award going to his film, because a recent tendency shows the compartmentalization of Academy voting (Argo winning BP without a directing nod, and Ang Lee winning Best Director twice, without a BP win). As for Best Picture, the fairly recent win for The Hurt Locker shows an Academy willingness to reward visceral and technical films with an American military element. I've got my money on a nod, but no win, even though this film surpasses The Hurt Locker on many levels. I left out all the "sound" awards for good reason: while this film may get those tech nominations, all the wins will go to Gravity.
*There are only two brief moments where these somewhat-obligatory notes are hit, but they are masked by the conviction Tom Hanks brings to the performance.