Director Paul Greengrass knows how to craft a thriller, and he crafts this one well, especially in the film’s exceptional first half.
In playing Captain Richard Phillips, Tom Hanks is better than tremendous. For most of the movie he fades into the character so well, so deeply, that we almost forget he’s an A-List star whom we have seen play some of Hollywood’s recent iconic characters. Then, Captain Phillips reaches its zenith and Hanks finds absolute mastery in playing a man experiencing equal doses of shock and relief. As of October, Hanks is my favorite leading male of 2013. He will surely be a candidate for many awards, including mine.
The first half of this feature is tense and suspenseful, promising interesting characters and taut drama. Both Muse (a terrific Barkhad Abdi) and Rich are compelling people trying desperately to succeed at tasks they are uniquely skilled to perform. Rich is not idealized or over-heroic, and Muse is not villainous or evil. They are both smart, tenacious and complicated. In these early stages, Captain Phillips promises to be a study of two men on opposite sides of a ferocious and awful situation in which one of them does bad out of desperation and the other proves strong enough to survive.
Because these two characters are well developed, we care about what happens to them, and that makes the events on the Maersk Alabama tremendously suspenseful, from the moment Muse and his pirates board the vessel, to the moment they lose control of it.
Then, Writer Billy Ray’s script moves Rich from the Alabama to the lifeboat and the movie’s focus shifts from its two lead characters to the navy’s involvement, and the unraveling chemistry between Muse’s crew. In so doing, Greengrass and Ray lose some of what makes the first half so compelling, so suspenseful. It’s not that Captain Phillips becomes bad when Rich and Muse cease to be its primary focus, not in the least; it’s just that the film is no longer extraordinary. It loses some of the edge that makes its first half so engrossing, insofar as we do not experience its characters to the same extent and therefore do not care quite as much.
Perhaps Captain Phillips could have retained its initial level of suspense if someone in the Navy had been better developed. But none of the military personnel have much personality. I’m not even certain we learn their names. If we do, I didn’t catch them.
I am not a big fan of Captain Phillips’ score. The soaring music sometimes overpowers the drama.
One final note. I love the casting decisions made by Greengrass and Casting Director Francine Maisier. Hanks is the perfect lead and the decision not to cast other recognizable actors as seamen aboard the ship makes the movie’s version of the Alabama feel real.
Captain Phillips is a strong thriller that is always entertaining, features two terrific performances, and never becomes less than watchable, so I definitely recommend it. But a bit more focus on character in the film’s second half might have made it more powerful, more memorable, especially insofar as the characters fuel all of its greatest moments.