“Tom Hanks gives the performance of a lifetime” – The Observer
So screams the marketing blurb on the DVD front cover of Captain Phillips. Quite some claim, if indeed this was the Observer quote and assuming that it hasn’t been taken completely out of context, something that movie marketeers are wont to do with grim regularity.
This is after all Tom Hanks we’re talking about, the man who won back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia, and whose memorable performance include Saving Mr Banks, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan, among many more. He is a man who has matured as an actor to add weight and gravitas to the flimsy performances in his youth; he delivers quality wherever he goes as well as being an A-lister – and you can’t say that of many screen performers. He also has integrity, choosing his projects with care and for the right reasons, and with the write co-stars and directors too – in this case British director Paul Greengrass.
In this case it was a film treatment of yet another “true story” – that of the hijacking of the strangely unarmed cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia in 2009. Adaptations of reality seem to be the flavour of the month in Hollywood at the moment, writers having apparently exhausted all the variations to be wrung from fictional stories, though this is a double-edged sword – rich material but rewriting history is a very dangerous game to play.
It’s an everyday tale of Somali pirates chasing and occupying the ship captained by Hanks’s Richard Phillips in order to ransom the crew, the crew’s attempts to evade capture, the resulting departure of the pirates with Captain Phillips on a lifeboat, and the SEAL intervention to recover Phillips safely at the expense of all pirates but for the ringleader – and that’s the movie in a nutshell. It’s an action pic, not really a thriller for reasons I’ll go on to discuss, and it makes just a perfunctory attempt to visualise the character’s domestic life, usually a staple of the movie industry to encourage us to build a rapport with our hero over the following two hours.
But luckily for us this movie is more than the sum of the parts and plot line. What makes it remarkable, and stand out from a million other movies, is not necessarily the old hands at the helm but the amateurs with no acting experience whatever. Barkhad Abdi (Barkhad Abdirahman, to give him his full name) was plucked from relative obscurity to play Abduwali Muse, leader of the pirate band. Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M Ali were also selected from 700 auditionists to join him in the pirate crew.
Each of them deserves fulsome praise, though Abdi it was who went on to gain three worthy nominations for best supporting actor, justly winning the BAFTA version. He will never perform more effectively as long as he lives, and part of that success is down to being fresh, spontaneous and credible, behaving as if the camera were not there and taking on the mantle of piracy as if it means it. But Muse is the thinking man, certainly not black and white – where Najee (Faysal Ahmed) is brimming with ferocious blood lust.
Credit too to Greengrass who prepared his cast for the invasion by not introducing Hanks and the pirates prior to the moment when they attacked the boat, wielding AK47s and threatening to kill everyone. Actors they may be but the fear was etched on the faces of the pros, and the newcomers certainly did not look overawed to be faced with grizzled Hollywood veterans like Hanks, Catherine Keener and David Warshofsky.
In that context, I find the marketing blurb somewhat sad. Hanks is blameless and acts as convincingly as you would expect of a quality performer, but his name is on the box because it will sell DVDs; the greater achievement is that of Abdi and his colleagues, but their names do not sell DVDs. The industry cares more about flogging more of its products than celebrating achievements, which to my way of thinking is cart before the horse.
My problem with this is not that it it’s done authentically and well, which it certainly is if you can accept that it’s done according to the modern fashion of jerky hand-held cameras and fly-on-the-wall shooting, which does not please everyone – some will feel sea-sick without leaving their sofas. No, the issue is this: you know in advance that Phillips survives to write the book, and that the pirates will be goners before the final scene, so predictability is not in question. Being American, this is not a movie that would have been made other than to glory in the performance of the SEALs who rescued their man – you probably won’t see a Hollywood epic in which the mission fails and the man gets killed, though I suspect other instances of piracy turned out less well.
Dramatically this is a problem. Not that Hanks is not likeable but in view of the inevitable ending I was rooting for the pirates, which is surely not meant to happen? To be fair Greengrass has not made a ludicrous piece of propaganda, and does make a reasonable effort to portray the pirates as human and just as much under pressure from their own side, but by the end the balance has shifted and the fair, decent and likeable Captain Phillips, victim that he is in this scenario, does not necessarily command the movie as he did the ship.
I also felt uncomfortable, based on the information given, that Muse accepted what was obviously a pig in a poke sold to him by the SEALs. Surely nobody would believe their elders were being flown over to the plane and that the ransom money was going to be paid if he left the escape vessel? Maybe that’s what actually happened in real life, but to me it seemed a corny and blatantly false offer.
Were I in the same position I would be demanding the US Navy jump to my terms, which may not have sealed my release forms but could not have turned out any worse. Is the real Muse more naive than at first he seems? This is what we are led to believe, though he is cooling his heels for 30 years at a correctional institute in Indiana, which should give him plenty of time to think about the choices he made.
What this does do is illustrate that the US and Somalia are poles apart in culture and outlook. Abdi effectively “Americanises” the motivations and rationale for an American audience, though I suspect a lot of what is communicated underplays the real factors at play that cause Somalis to feel the need to attack ships. In the movie it is quoted as “just business.”
Given the extensive praise this movie has received, I expected to feel slightly more positive about it, though you can’t say there is anything remotely wrong with any aspect of it. I hope you do enjoy it and feel quite sure you will. I hope my reservations have not put you off.
Oh, and Hanks? Well I don’t think this is the performance of a lifetime, though it’s highly competent and professional. But then surely every screen actor goes through life thinking his last performance is his best? Good luck to him for the next performance of a lifetime!