“There’s gotta be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.”
“Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”
With the eerie resignation that has coloured his expression since his opening scene, Muse calmly utters these words to the frantic Phillips, and slowly lowers his weapon, marking what is easily the most poignant moment of the Oscar-nominated Captain Phillips.
Based on the incredible real-life story, Captain Phillips follows the hijacking of an American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, by Somali pirates on its journey around the horn of Africa. Tom Hanks leads the cast as the stoic Phillips who, with stilted calmness, attempts to peacefully negotiate the raid of Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his small band of pirates. As things slowly spiral out of Muse’s control, the pirates drop off the ship into one of its lifeboats with Phillips as their hostage. Bound for Somalia, and desperate for a payoff, they soon find themselves at the centre of a full-blown Navy SEALS rescue operation in the middle of the sea.
For me, the most captivating part of this movie was Barkhad Abdi’s performance as Muse. The character emits an eerie aura of normalcy for most of the film (or perhaps it’s more of an indifference), while his fellow pirates can’t control their fear or anger. This, coupled with his thin frame, made him seem strangely unthreatening despite his loaded weapon. I don’t mean to say the performance wasn’t believable, or that the threat wasn’t completely and terrifyingly real, only that Abdi brought subtle strokes of humanity to the character with his inexplicable indifference, moments of hesitation, and communication heavy stare-offs with Hanks’s Phillips, that had me feeling like he wasn’t truly a villain at all, much less evil.
I haven’t read the book that this is based on (A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, by the real Captain Phillips), so I’m not sure if this was solely a movie decision or not, but I really enjoyed the way they chose not to paint any of the Somalis as inherently ‘bad’. They did an okay (though incomplete) job of contrasting Somalia and America at the beginning, and later gave brief flickers of the reality of Somali life (see dialogue above). It was mostly Muse’s apathy, though, that hinted at the very few options in life they were afforded.
The brilliance of Tom Hanks in any film tends to be either overly critiqued or entirely overlooked because, well, Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks. We hold him to a different standard, and there’s a sort of monotony to the unshakeable fact that he’s always that good. Even in roles we’d rather he hadn’t chosen, we get hypercritical or just ignore the film altogether…but in a loving, I’m-just-being-supportive-way because…Tom Hanks, don’t you know that you’re Tom Hanks? Get it together!
My point is, of course he was utterly phenomenal in this film—in fact, I had no doubt that he would be, but I definitely overlooked it in the moment. (I was far more interested in Abdi, the limo-driver turned Oscar-nominee—what can I say? I’m a sucker for a Cinderella story). However, Hanks could have earned an nomination for his performance in the aftermath—the shock of his rescue, his dry sobs hindered by a mixture of hyperventilation and incoherency, for his choked “the blood is not mine, it’s not mine”, and his breathless, desperate repetition of thankyouthankyouthankyou …But then again, he’s Tom Hanks, so I wouldn’t have expected anything less.
Lucky for the story itself, the film was entirely dependent on the performances of Hanks and Abdi, and thus was able to succeed with an entire supporting cast of two-dimensional characters. (I guess it’s possible that the crewmembers were intentionally not further developed out of respect for their real-life counterparts).
Either way, the strongest moments throughout the film—by far—were the heavy looks shared between Phillips and Muse, and the unspoken words of desperation and threat that hung in the air between them.
Billy Ray is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, but based on the excruciating exposition in the opening scenes (seriously, if anyone besides Hanks was delivering the lines, it would have been unwatchable), and the flat secondary characters, I’m not sure he deserves to win.
I could have done without the blatant Americanism that coloured the entire film, but I guess that comes part and parcel with a movie about a Navy SEALS rescue operation. Oh, and also every single movie that comes out of America ever.
But, when it comes down to it, I did thoroughly enjoy watching Captain Phillips. It won’t be winning the Oscar this year, but I can get behind the honour of the nomination.
And even though I think the odds are against him, part of me will really be rooting for Barkhad Abdi for the Supporting Actor category. His Cinderella story aside, he was genuinely the most intriguing part of this film for me. Plus HE’S the Captain now, ya know?
Damn. I made it so far without saying something silly. Welp, I tried.
Tune in on Tuesday to get the skinny on Nebraska. (Did I use ‘get the skinny’ in the correct context? It was just something new I thought I’d try…)
Catch ya later, artsies!
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