As has been noted by a few other reviewers, there is a special difficulty in making a thriller based on historical events. One somehow has to manage to keep things exciting even though the audience already knows how things will turn out. A large part of making this work involves having actors who can truly convey the emotional state of their characters — although the viewer may know the outcome, the characters after all do not. Director Paul Greengrass must have felt fortunate with the title role of Captain Phillips, as when he joined the film it already had Tom Hanks, who previously had been in Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan, films with similar issues. Given that Captain Phillips has joined those films in the ranks of Oscar Best Picture nominees, it would seem to have worked out well.
We’ll just casually ignore the absence of Tom Hanks from the Best Actor category and presume that it was a banner year for male leads.
As Captain Phillips, Hanks turns in another of the stellar performances that we have come to expect from him in dramatic roles. It’s not a part that calls for over-emoting. Captain Phillips is soft-spoken, a stern but loyal captain to his crew. Even when dealing with the Somali pirates that hijack his ship, there are only a few times where Hanks raises his voice, yet his concern and frustration are obvious. It’s a more difficult role than it looks like. Phillips is, over the course of the narrative, stern, concerned, stoic, worried, exhausted, in shock and relieved. None of these are states of mind that call for huge outward displays. In a lesser actor’s hands, it would be easy for them to all run together in a hazy blur of numbness. Hanks effectively captures each one.
There’s a similar element at work with the Somali pirates. These are not larger-than-life figures, but ordinary men who have taken up an unusual trade. They are shown to be afraid of their bosses and of the risks of the criminal enterprise they’re engaging in. While their course of action is ill-advised to say the least, and they fall for a few of the heroes’ tricks to deter or delay them, they are not stupid men either. Nor are they all of the same mind and mold. Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) is young and inexperienced; eager to join in at first before he learns how dangerous it can really be. The film even manages to evoke some sympathy for the pirate-in-training as Captain Phillips notes how young the man really is. Najee (Faysal Ahmed), who seems to be second-in-command, is a hot-head who is ready to pull a trigger at any moment and only barely under control of skiff captain Muse. The fourth member, Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) is somewhere in between the two.
All four of the pirates are played by Somali-Americans who had no prior film or screen credits, yet they do not come across as amateurs. These are skillful portrayals, even if the characters are given little time to shine as individuals. But it’s Barkhad Abdi who truly shines as Muse. Though he’s the villain of the piece, he is shown to be as complex and thoughtful a man as Captain Phillips. While his mood mostly remains a constant state of determination, there’s a clear flux in his thought processes as he has to juggle his takeover of the cargo ship, controlling his crew, and controlling Captain Phillips and his crew. When he boasts of taking in a six-million-dollar haul from a Greek ship previously, there’s a sense that he’s trying to convince himself this is a routine operation as much as Captain Phillips. This is naturally shaken when Phillips asks why, if he has six million dollars, he needs to hijack another ship. It’s this game of verbal cat-and-mouse that helps to keep the tension high as Phillips tries to buy his crew enough time to get to safety, and if either of the main actors weren’t up to the task the film would have suffered greatly by it. Just as Hanks delivers as Phillips, Abdi delivers as Muse.
Look at me. Look at me. I’m the Oscar nominee now.
It really is a thrilling film. It doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to pretend that this will be just an ordinary day for the crew of the Maersk; the pirates show up fairly early and from then on tensions run high until the very end. Though the audience may know the outcome of the story — at least, if they were reading newspapers four years ago — there is no lack of suspense, as the film shows the many ways things could have turned out tragic for Captain Phillips along the way. This may not be a guns-blazing action movie, but it’s every bit as thrilling as one.