Oct. 10--"Captain Phillips" is a surprise on many levels.
The film, opening Friday, works as both a tense, threatening thriller and a complex portrait of living in a world made up of "third worlds."
Paul Greengrass has taken the true-life saga of the 2009 hijacking of the Norfolk-ported cargo ship Maersk Alabama and turned it into something more than just an exciting tale. The rescue of Captain Richard Phillips after he was held hostage by Somali pirates is enough in itself to fuel excitement. Unexpectedly, the movie adds the underlying economic divide that motivates the incident.
Greengrass, who helmed the equally tense "United 93" (about Americans who also fought against a hijacking on 9/11), has an investigative instinct to go along with his mastery of the thriller form.
Parts of "Captain Phillips" were filmed here, in the waters around Hampton Roads, last summer. With that in mind, you can marvel at the work of the crews of the Truxtun, Halyburton, Wasp and all the helicopter pilots, former Navy SEALs and other vast local Navy contributors to the all-important climactic scene.
A particular Cinderella bit was played in that climax by Truxtun crew member Danielle Albert, who was recruited to tend to Hanks' Phillips when he ruminates on the fact that he is still living. Emotionally, it is the best scene in the movie and the thrust of Hanks' new Oscar bid. In an interview, he said Albert, who had never acted before, broke into tears after the first take. But encouraged by Hanks, she fared perfectly in the second take.
Yes, Hanks will be nominated for a third Academy Award. In fact, this role is something of a comeback for him after such lackluster outings as "Larry Crowne," "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," "Cloud Atlas" and "The Da Vinci Code."
Hollywood's epitome of the Everyman, Hanks has had a tough time in an ill-advised effort to cross over into action films. The problem is solved here. During the first half of the film, he uses a rather unimpressive monotone of command (to suggest authority). He cashes in his Everyman persona in the second half to make us care about Captain Phillips' plight. At the same time, his Phillips is no pushover. This is a difficult balance. The result is Hanks' best role since 2000's "Cast Away."
Still, the film is dominated (stolen) by the amazing and forceful presence of first-time actor Barkhad Abdi as Muse, a toothy skeleton leading the ragtag gang of four armed teenagers who take over a cargo ship inhabited by 20 unarmed men.
Abdi was recruited from the Somali population of Minneapolis and somehow persuaded the movie people to also take his three friends to play his gang. The camaraderie shows. Calling Phillips "Irish," Abdi is the threat that keeps us alert at all times -- watching the screen as well as our backs.
"Relax, Captain, relax. Just business. No Al-Qaida. You stop the ship," the pirate mutters.
Amazingly, Billy Ray's script manages to generate some understanding, if not sympathy, for Muse, who is not an ordinary villain. Here is a boy from poverty and starvation who sees the riches of the "other" world sailing by on the waters off his coast every day. When Phillips suggests to him that "there's got to be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people," Muse replies, meaningfully, "Maybe in America."
Malnourished and in rags, this young man is up against the full might of the American military. He is the criminal and the villain, but we are made to feel his predicament.
Hanks and Abdi never met until they were on the set filming the scenes -- heightening the threat. Abdi immediately becomes the front-runner for this year's best supporting actor Oscar.
"Captain Phillips" starts off so briskly, immediately with the pirate takeover, that we have to wonder how the film is going to fill its two-hour running time.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game that is neither surprising nor eventful, but is given momentum by Greengrass's docudrama approach.
Finally, here is a director who can use handheld cameras without making us dizzy while, at the same time, freeing the actors and the drama to a more open stage.
With 75 percent of the movie taking place on the open water, the assault and rescue of the Alabama was shot halfway around the world -- off the coast of Malta using a cargo ship similar to the Alabama, the Maersk Alexander. The unlikelihood of a small skiff in rough waters pulling beside, and boarding, a large cargo ship plays out before our amazed eyes.
The crew hides in the engine room. The ship is searched. Glass is planted to injure one of the barefoot teens. The action leads inevitably to Phillips going overboard with the kidnappers in a small lifeboat in what was the first successful pirate seizure of a ship under the American flag since the early 1800s.
The final 33 minutes of this movie are as tense as anything captured on film in recent years -- and all for a conclusion that we know before entering the theater.
At its best, this movie is more a drama than an adventure. For the second consecutive year (after "Lincoln"), a movie filmed in Virginia will be in the running for best picture.
Mal Vincent, 757-446-2347, email@example.com
Cast Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Catherine Keener
Director Paul Greengrass
Screenplay Billy Ray
Music Henry Jackman
MPAA rating PG-13 (tense, threats of violence)
Find Local Showtimes for "Captain Phillips"
(c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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