In 2006 Paul Greengrass achieved the seemingly impossible, bifurcating Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum with United 93; a taut 9/11 thriller which didn’t canonize the victims nor demonize the hijackers. What could have been an exercise in too-soon exploitation or jingoism was instead a barebones, surprisingly evenhanded thriller that gave life to tragedy. His newest real-world hijacking film, Captain Phillips shares many of United 93’s strengths, improving one aspect but declining in another.
That superiority comes in not one but two outstanding performances. Tom Hanks is about as close to automatic as an actor can get and his turn here is yet another to add to a brilliant resume. It isn’t showy Oscar-bait like some before it, but it’s confident and determined, even when the situation shakes both and anxiety slowly overwhelms. Yet his greatest moment comes just before the film’s end and the final minutes on screen area a type of realism rarely captured in a film like this. Of course Hanks is the star and will get the majority of notice, but Barkhad Adbi’s intense performance as head hijacker Muse is truly something to behold. Like the United 93 hijackers before him, what could have been a generic foreigner villain is given sympathy to the point where it’s easy to imagine the character’s life under different circumstances. The film is at its best when this first-time actor, unshakeable even when everything is against him, goes head-to-head with the veteran Hanks.
Fitting with how Muse is treated, each of the other hijackers, although not characterized beyond archetypes, are given enough individual traits to distinguish them from each other. They may be the bad guys, but they are bad for a reason, and Captain Phillips does a great job of hinting at those without resorting to unnatural exposition. Its critique of first world practices nicely undercuts any rah-rah patriotism even as a clearly dominant force takes control, and the biggest “America, F**K Yeah!” is more a cause for horror than celebration.
Even with all the tension, Captain Phillips has its lax moments. Greengrass does an excellent job increasing pressure during quiet scenes, but the stretching and repetition of certain set-ups to increase already heightened suspense can result in numbed payoff.
Captain Phillips has its hero moments, its villains and its victims. But it doesn’t take pride or condemnation in any of these. There are no winners. There are only survivors.[subscribe2]