Crooked teeth don’t belong in Hollywood movies.  Even the bad guys are supposed to have good, reliable dentists (Steve Buscemi aside).  To present the viewer with anything less than physically pleasing characters is so unheard of that, while a man carrying an AK-47 is familiar to any moviegoer, a man with crooked teeth holding said assault weapon is disturbing in a very visceral way.  And so Captain Phillips reaches into your gut and latches on and wrings you out with each successive act.  It’s a starkly beautiful achievement and it is absolutely exhausting.

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

For those who didn’t read “A Captain’s Duty” (like me) and didn’t follow the events in 2009 upon which this film is based (like me), let’s go over the bullet points.  Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) has a thick Hollywood-Boston accent and a relaxed command presence as he guides his cargo ship along the coast of Somalia when four pirates with an outboard motor, assault rifles, and eyes (nearly) bigger than their stomachs board the vessel and ask for a $10 million ransom they can’t get.  The crew hides to avoid being taken hostage, tensions mount as Phillips tries to fulfill his obligations to ship and crew by negotiating with Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), a man who is simultaneously in control of the moment and trying to extricate himself from a situation that he has no real power over.  Phillips and the pirates eventually board a lifeboat and the arc concludes in gripping fashion.

The film communicates its need to tell this story visually in compelling, sickeningly beautiful form.  The handheld camerawork is not a gimmick nor a directorial signature here; it is the rough sea and inflatable raft and thrum of the small outboard just as much as the stark shades of blue and grey that exchange the romance of the sea for, no matter how large the ship, terrifying claustrophobia.  The dialogue is fraught with uncertainty, but the camerawork forces the viewer to respond physically to these interactions.  We don’t see the world in perfect angles, so why should we see the battle of wills between one man holding another at gunpoint in anything less than trembling realism?  It lands…hard.  At no point during or after this film will you dare to think “if I had been there I would’ve…”.

Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener

Hanks’ role calls to mind his performance as the sleep-deprived, lifeboat-bound astronaut Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13”, inasmuch as his sense of duty compels him to carry on by sheer force of will in a situation where it would be much easier to surrender to the forces that press themselves upon him.  Boston accent aside, Hanks’ matter-of-fact projection of power over the two-way radio is naturally at ease (“foe-wah pirates ah-boe-wahd”) and brings the emotional wrangling of negotiating for his life with a 20-year-old kid all the more intense by contrast.  Here there is no mission control to contact, only the snaggle-toothed and conspicuously thin pirate in Abdi’s debut role.

The fact that Muse is played by an actual Somali and former refugee is fitting, but there is more to Abdi than his backstory.  Blessed with the rare gift of controlling a room with his glare, his performance is riveting in its subtlety; his authority over the band of pirates is never truly in doubt yet his face and eyes communicate desperation.

The crooked teeth are genuinely terrifying… an upsettingly realistic aesthetic flaw in an upsettingly sublime film.  As the movie carries on and your heart palpitations become more and more concerning, you feel the weight shifting in Phillips’ heart from concern about his ship, to concern about his crew, to the ultimate question of whether he will return home.  Hanks is deserving of every ounce of praise he receives for this performance, but the taut visual style and formidable presence opposite him present an environment in which every successive event feels both organic and too real.

When I hear “biopic” my mind drifts toward “Walk the Line” and when I hear “thriller” I prepare myself to be emotionally manipulated by a bass-heavy soundtrack.  Watching this film, however, is a genuine and physically draining experience; it fulfills the best of its potential and is a rare example of based-on-a-true-story actually being significant to how one feels during and after the screening.  It’s a gritty, unpretentious genre film that is artistically significant for taking those criteria to the highest level of execution. See it with a stout heart and stay the hell away from the Somali coast.

About The Author

Patrick Suleski is a sommelier by training, a beer-nerd by occupation and an enthusiastic writing dilettante

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