(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
The emotions are beautifully understated in Captain Phillips. The very first scene has Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) packing for his voyage on the cargo heavy Maersk Alabama from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. We see only his wife all too briefly and them discussing their children’s future. We don’t see the children at all. This seems to be a conceptual decision as even during the entire hijack and pirates-rescue team standoff, there is never a moment off the seas. Nothing of the family or the aftermath closer home is shown. This goes a long way in making Captain Phillips as exhilarating as it is.
Adapted from Richard Phillips’ book on the events by Bill Ray and directed by Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips begins lazily but the thought behind this comes around in the second half when the situation heats up. Greengrass is a master at pacing stories like this and he teases you with deliberate fluctuating intensity. We see the pirates coming at first, as does Phillips and just as the situation builds up, the ever thoughtful Captain wards them off with some clever trickery. It’s normal again for a short period. When the pirates are on-board after a tense battle of bullets and flares and gushing water, there is a moment to breathe again when some sort of deal is about to be struck. But then they take off with the Captain on the lifeboat and from there on the intensity is such that a computer monitor informs us that the situation is normal in the end and allows us to sit easy.
The film is called Captain Phillips for a reason and not The Great American Rescue Mission. It is a true story and we know how it ends, and when it does the focus is on Phillips, after a traumatic distressing situation. The film chooses to show the immediate aftermath, a medical test on the captain and not some celebratory instances that might have belonged elsewhere. This is an exceptional quality the film holds throughout, it is completely dispassionate regarding the events, the outcomes and focuses instead on its central character. There is none to very little of the American chest beating that is typical of such films and for this the team must be praised.
Tom Hanks is brilliant here. This is such a wonderful bit of casting to make one of Hollywood’s respected guys play this role of a man, spotless on the surface, but slowly reveals his share of flaws. Hanks aces the disingenuous nature of the captain, who’s got his crew’s back but is also not straight with them about the risky voyage. As for our voyage through the film, it is riveting all the way till the credits.