In the wide pantheon of Tom Hanks performances, there are few you would characterize as understated. Maybe his gangster in Road to Perdition, his death row officer in The Green Mile, or Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, though you could argue that last one was more like sleepwalking. But I’m not sure any of them feel as natural or lived-in as his performance in last year’s Captain Phillips, nor are any of them in the service of a movie that made me feel as on the edge of my seat.
Tom Hanks is Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, a container ship sailing around the Horn of Africa, off the coast of Somalia. His ship is attacked by pirates, led by a Somali man named Abduwali Muse. This whole ordeal is directed by Paul Greengrass, director of Bournes Supremacy and Ultimatum, as well as the harrowing United 93. I appreciate Greengrass’s methodical approach; he always makes movies feel like they’re actually happening right in front of you. People criticize his handheld-camera style, but it’s never bothered me. Most action movies are made to be escapist, but Greengrass makes action movies that are anything but. Instead, at the end of his movies, especially Captain Phillips, we have no choice but to consider unattractive truths about our world.
I was overwhelmed with Tom Hanks’s performance. His Phillips seemed like a model for manhood, maintaining his composure under threat of death in order to protect those who are under your care and to fulfill your duty. And it’s been said by seemingly everyone who’s written about the film, but, truthfully, the last 5 minutes of the movie count among Hanks’s finest moments on screen. It makes no sense that he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor, even considering the strength of the rest of the field.
Equally as good is the Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the Somali pirates. I was afraid his performance would turn out to be a stereotypical, evil African villain, reducing the Somali pirates to caricatures and lauded only because he played bad really well. I was pleasantly surprised to find Muse to be a full human being. He was on that boat because he felt he didn’t have a choice and that it was the only opportunity to provide for his family. It was fascinating to watch Muse’s mental state dissolve from that of a confident leader to a man just putting on a face for his men, even when he knows all may be lost. Not that he’s absolved of his sins just because he’s sympathetic; but the movie is made richer by Abdi showing us Muse’s humanity.
The movie seems like it should have a rousing ending, leading its audiences to cheers when the Navy SEALs perform their duty and (SPOILER FOR AN EVENT COVERED IN THE MASS MEDIA) kill the Somali pirates, but I was struck with how sobering the whole film ended up being. Instead of being solidly “America!”, it turns out to be remarkably sympathetic and contemplative about America’s place in the world from the perspective of the citizens of developing countries. In a scene near the end, Phillips tells Muse, “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.” Muse’s response is short, terse, and probably encapsulates how most of the world feels about America. Greengrass has tailored a near-perfect movie to force us Americans to face that.