Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi & Barkhad Abdirahman
Biopics are a tricky animal. I say often that they’re my least favourite genre, not because they’re inherently bad, but because they often become the home of mainstream bad film-making, with lazy directors leaning on real life pathos to get away with not actually making a film of any substance or with any identity. For mainstream Hollywood, Biopics are as cynical a brand-value form of film-making as there can be. With the only reason they’re making films about Margaret Thatcher or Johnny Cash is because you’ve heard of them, giving them brand value, just the same as Superman or Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps it’s for this reason that so many of them lack a creative core or a bona fide reason to exist.
Captain Phillips is more along the type of biopic I support. Centred on extraordinary happenings or an extraordinary person instead of an extra-ordinarily famous person, centred on a single event rather than being a rushed greatest hits montage of a life, so busy rushing through everything it barely does justice to anything. This is the true story of two people. Industrial freighter Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks), and Muse (Abdi), the leader of a fly by night group of Somali pirates, and what happened when the latter attempted to hijack the former’s ship.
On paper there was no-one better to make this story a movie than Paul Greengrass. His United 93 is near masterpiece in journalistic film-making, telling the story of an emotionally heightened and profoundly tragic event with clarity and precision. There was no crass exploitation of the tragedy or the terror and Greengrass allowed the events to speak for themselves. That restraint led to something more hard-hitting and real, and Greengrass brings that same stiff upper lip to Captain Phillips, steering the film clear of sentimentality or making things too black and white. Muse is presented clearly as the villain, but the decision to make this a two-hander instead of being entirely from Phillips’ perspective lends the film complexity and ambiguity. Abdi plays a bad guy, but one who is bad because his environment requires it, a victim of very bleak circumstance.
Tom Hanks has had a hard time of it in his 50’s, and it’s been a while since he had a movie that was a hit critically or commercially. Cloud Atlas had its fans, but it also had its haters. He needed Captain Phillips, a film that has been both a critical success and perhaps more importantly for Hanks at this point, a commercial one. Personally, I’m a big fan of Hanks. I think he has an innate, undying likability that is preciously rare in actors let alone movie stars. He can ground any movie, and humanise almost anyone. He’s the perfect anchor for a film like this, giving the film a rock-solid emotional centre. He doesn’t need gooey monologues to win the audience’s support, he already has it, and that goes hand in hand with Greengrass’ style perfectly.
The film does have some pacing problems, specifically that the cat and mouse game between Phillips and Muse that ensues both before and during the hijacking is fantastically executed, nerve-wracking cinema, and the film’s second half can’t really live up to it. There’s nothing to be done about that, that’s the way reality went. But the film is somewhat less engaging once it narrows its focus in the latter portion of the film, nonetheless, and it becomes a bit more repetitive. I liked Abdi’s performance, but it isn’t a powerhouse one and at times he does struggle to hold the screen opposite Hanks. I did appreciate the attempt to create a subtler character, but at times, particularly when things turn claustrophobic and the film needed Abdi to carry it, he does so only partially successfully. He’s not bad, but he could have been better.
Ultimately though, this is a well-made, impressively tense piece of cinema. Greengrass brings a realism to proceedings that is rarely found on films of this scale, and that gives it a real sense of starkness when compared to other films of its type. It feels that, for the most part, there’s as little bullshit here as possible. You’re not talked down to and the violins don’t remind you when it’s time to be sad or scared. It’s grown-up film-making that respects the audience, and while this isn’t quite the best example of it (go watch United 93) it’s a hell of a lot better than most films of its type you’re likely to see.