Two Men in Some Boats
Despite all evidence to the contrary, not to mention (some might suggest) simple common sense, my favourite film of the year so far is still, probably, Cloud Atlas, simply for its utter courageous bonkersness. There's one thing you can say about Tom Hanks, which is that he's not afraid to go out on a limb once in a while and take on a less mainstream project than you might expect of someone who's essentially one of the most respected mainstream movie actors on the planet. His latest film, Captain Phillips, is perhaps another example of this, being just a little more edgy and political than most.
Then again, it's directed by Paul Greengrass, maestro of the two best Bourne movies by far, and occupies the same sort of naturalistic geopolitical terrain. It is essentially an account of the true story of the coming together of two men, Richard Phillips (Hanks), master of a huge container ship with a crew of twenty, and Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), chief of a rather fragile dinghy with a complement of four AK-47 toting pirates.
We first see Phillips driving to the airport from his Vermont home, having a very banal conversation with his wife en route. We first see Muse in a remote part of Somalia, recruiting men for his latest expedition – the pirates have to bribe their way into a spot on the dinghy – and the story continues along these parallel lines until the pair finally come to face to face. Phillips' latest assignment is to take his vessel around the horn of Africa from Oman to Mombasa, into pirate-infested waters.
It seems barely credible that a huge ship like Phillips' could be seriously threatened by a tiny launch carrying only a handful of men, and this is perhaps reflected in the captain's shock and incredulity as the pirates first appear on his radar (needless to say, Hanks portrays this well). The outcome of the pirates' assault is by no means a foregone conclusion and the battle of wits between the two commanders is grippingly depicted and extremely tense. This is all the more impressive given that the movie's own publicity makes it very clear that the pirates eventually get on board!
What follows concerns Phillips' attempts to safeguard his ship and crew while deflecting Muse, who is equally determined to get back to Somalia with a big payday. What's striking is the way that, initially at least, Phillips consistently underestimates Muse's intelligence and determination. Considering the assymmetrical nature of the conflict, it seems fairly clear that Greengrass is, on some level, framing the film as an allegory for terrorist attacks on America. This is never much more than a subtext, however, and given how it all plays out (no spoilers, but the might of the US navy goes into action) it's not exactly subversively presented.
The first half of Captain Phillips is superb – Greengrass is a master of this kind of grown-up thriller, and Hanks and Abdi are both excellent. The cagey interaction between the two captains is consistently gripping throughout the sequences set on the container ship.
However, the second half of the movie mostly takes place on a lifeboat commandeered by the pirates, in which Phillips is being held hostage, and this I found rather less successful. There's a lot of arguing amongst the pirates as to what they're going to do, the doings of various forces of the US military moving into position around them are also documented, and Hanks himself gets relatively little to do: though still the central figure of the drama, he's reduced to being a passive figure, even a victim – and while Hanks gives this his best shot, you still get a sense of a movie not making best use of its greatest resource.
This is a serious film, not a popcorn action movie, and a slightly tough watch in places as a result. Nevertheless, the central story is interesting enough, and certainly well-enough told, for it to be a rewarding experience, even if it isn't particularly innovative or thought-provoking. Certainly there's no kind of moral relativism going on here – Muse gets some dialogue explaining how the pirates are really only fishermen forced into a new line of work by the pressures of globalisation, and bemoaning the lack of opportunity available to Somalis as opposed to Americans, but this isn't much more than lip-service. (Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass gamely showed up on a UK news programme to discuss the film with a Somali activist complaining that it demonised all Somalis, as opposed to just the pirates.)
Then again, there's a limit to how much you can make people who take over boats at gunpoint sympathetic. To be fair, Barkhad Abdi does a very good job of making a ruthless, desperate man into a human being rather than a bogeyman, and he holds the screen against Hanks' star charisma impressively well. One suspects he may be in the running for the annual ethnic-diversity Best Supporting Actor fig-leaf nomination, but equally one can legitimately wonder exactly what kind of mainstream movie career he can look forward to: it's hard to conceive of him getting a supporting role in a popcorn blockbuster or rom-com.
Anyway, this is a very well-made movie with strong performances, even if the first half is rather more engaging than the second. As a result it is solid rather than actually outstanding, but it's still a quality piece of film-making.