DIEGESIS : THE UNCONVENTIONAL MAGAZINE OF FILM AND TELEVISION CRITICISM
Captain Phillips Paul Greengrass / USA / 2013
by JACK BEETLESTONE
Friday 1st November 2013
There is something about watching Tom Hanks on screen that rouses joy and approval. In Paul Greengrass’s modern day pirate tale based on the true story of the Somali hijacking of an American cargo ship, the star of such films as Philadelphia (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Cast Away (2000) once again plays the ultimate lovable nice guy. However, this time Hanks brings a bit more grit to a role we think we have seen him play time and time again. Yes, he is the people’s knight in (this time) naval armour but now Hanks has a bit more facial hair and a whole load of guts. He’s no Travis Bickle, but he’s a long way from Forrest Gump too.
Right from the outset Greengrass gives the film a sense of impending doom as we wait for the pirates to arrive. These are not prancing, flamboyant Jack Sparrow pirates wielding swords but mean-spirited, desperate Somali pirates armed with rifles, looking for the biggest floating treasure chest they can find. When they finally board the ship, they quickly assert their dominance over Captain Phillips and his crew but the strength of Hanks’s performance prevents them from asserting their dominance over the screen as well. Each pirate provides a beautifully evil performance to contrast Hanks’s everyman hero persona.
The Somalian actors deserve recognition for their efforts in what was their first film role although such recognition is unlikely. One glaring disappointment of film was the lack of space given to exploring why the Somali pirates were committing their crimes. Extreme poverty is presented as the obvious but implicit reason. Captain Phillips and the chief pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) have a brief and fleeting exchange about the reasons behind the robbery: “Why can’t you just be fishermen?” Captain Phillips asks. “Maybe in America” Muse responds. The deeper implications are ignored; it is a missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, the film packs a punch stylistically, featuring magnificent wide shots of monstrous ships sitting calmly in the middle of ocean. The standout flagship shot of the silhouetted Navy Seals flying down from the sky is simply brilliant. The sheer suspense of the film is masterfully crafted and will likely earn Greengrass an Oscar nomination. The narrative carefully builds up until it finally comes to a shuddering halt in the closing scene where Hanks provides one of the best performances I have seen from an actor in a long while.
Reports have been sailing around the web from certain crewmembers of Captain Phillips’s ship who claim that Greengrass’s film does not truthfully depict the Captain. They argue that Phillips is not the heroic leader played by Hanks but is an arrogant, self-righteous man interested only in self-preservation. As it happens, the film is based on the memoirs of Richard Phillips, which may offer some answers as to why he is shown in such a glorious light.
This does, however, raise a question regarding the roles that Tom Hanks plays. He is very often the all-American, the guy-next-door. It would be quite alien to audiences to see Hanks playing the supposedly arrogant Richard Phillips as has been argued or any sort of villain. His performance in Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition (2002) gave us an insight into his capabilities of playing an anti-hero but a likeable and moralistic one at that. He has recently stated his desire to play a Batman villain so it may be time for directors to take a gamble on Hanks and write him a part that goes against his nice guy persona. Captain Phillips is a step in the right direction and there is a complexity to his role that hints at darker possibilities.