Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Tom Hanks enduring captivity as "Captain Phillips."
By Dominique Paul Noth

“Captain Phillips” proves how superbly Hollywood can fashion a taut thriller from the headlines. It bends to our emotional fulfillment more than to accuracy in its depiction of that famous 2009 incident when skipper Richard Phillips’ unarmed cargo ship was hijacked and he was kidnapped by Somali pirates and then rescued in a swift SEALs assault.

It hits all our buttons for tension.  It fashions human conflict to support an abundance of technological excitements on the high seas, dazzling with rapid cuts and outbreaks of action.  It is in the hands of masters, from an excellent production crew to especially director Paul Greengrass. From “Bloody Sunday” to the best Bourne movies, Greengrass has demonstrated a knack for documentary underpinnings in wrenching conflict. 

This is also the best we have seen Tom Hanks in years, and I have a theory about that. Hanks is the envy of every other movie star for his runaway likeability factor – plus A in every movie poll ever taken. He is a nice guy -- apparently off the screen as on – and a smart guy in his knowledge of films. Yet he always seems better in movies that force the trained actor in him to park that nice-guy persona in the backseat.  It must be a struggle, since studios know Mr. Likeable is enough to lure audiences. (Witness the current “Saving Mr. Banks.”)

So there was a nice guy but a real actor  underneath his excellent AIDS victim in “Philadelphia” and inside the efficient combat veteran who really just wants to get home in “Saving Private Ryan” --  and particularly when the movie doesn’t ride on his shoulders, such as the character acting in “Catch Me If You Can.”

“Captain Phillips” does ride on his star power, but he fools the expected with his talent to play down niceness. Sure, we want him to win – we always want the hostage to win – but he lures us with skills. He creates a gentle New England accent, a homebody persona, a businesslike efficiency on deck, a calculated preparation for trouble and a psychological control in handling the attackers. Only a salvo of berserk violence snaps his tight professionalism into heart-stopping desperation and humanity.

Along the way, the audience cheers patriotically at the majestic intercession and determination of the Navy and the SEALs. But it also gets a sidelight into the tribal realities that drive the Somalis to piracy, fueled by their fierce fantasies of wealth and commitment to warlord tactics.

Barkhad Abdi leads the Somali pirates
 onto the captain’s ship.
They are led by “Skinny,” the cunning but childlike pirate leader who is always chewing khat (a stimulus plant popular in Africa) and dreaming of big loot.  He is a dangerous uncontrollable adversary suspicious of Phillips’ Yankee logic and superior seamanship.  And that makes his mental combat with pragmatic Americans unpredictable and frightening. It has brought deserved understandable attention to first time actor Barkhad Abdi, but it is a one of a kind role insufficient to prove he merits long-lasting supporting actor honors.

The film has generated historical controversy.  Phillips’ torturous experience clearly had heroic elements and his daring rescue was a highlight reel of US military superiority.   But to drive the tale, the movie makes the captain more heroic than the facts and tries to signal his astuteness, always anticipating the outcome.  Hanks handles the role with admirable honestly whatever the demands imposed by script and star draw.

Still, Hank is not quite on par with his competition at awards time.   They had parts, often historically based as well, that allowed more natural subtleties or more explosive insights. But it is Hanks better than the role in a movie that is better than it had to be to rivet us to our seats. 

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Blue Jasmine.”   Check them out and add your comments.