Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Captain Phillips (dir by Paul Greengrass)


tom-hanks-barkhad-abdi-captain-phillips

Here’s an interesting and often overlooked fact:

It has been 17 years since Tom Hanks was last nominated for Best Actor.

When I discovered this fact, I was shocked because Tom Hanks is one of those actors who has a reputation for always getting nominated.  We tend to think of him as almost being a male Meryl Streep, an actor who will be nominated simply for showing up.  But, actually, the Academy last nominated Tom Hanks, for his performance in Cast Away, in the year 2000.

Hanks has given plenty of strong performances since then and he’s continued to appear in acclaimed and Oscar-nominated films.  And you would think, considering his apparent popularity in Hollywood, Tom Hanks would have been nominated for everything from Charlie Wilson’s War to Bridge of Spies.  But no.

Personally, I think Hanks should have been nominated this year for Sully.  But you know what Hanks performance truly deserved some Oscar recognition?

Captain Phillips.

Playing the title role in this 2013 Best Picture nominee, Hanks gave perhaps the best performance of his career.  That he was snubbed by the Academy is not only shocking but it’s actually a bit unforgivable.  Perhaps Hanks was so good that the Academy took him for granted.  Perhaps they thought that since both Hanks and Richard Phillips are decent, down-to-Earth guys, that Hanks was just playing himself.  For whatever reason, Tom Hanks deserved, at the very least, a nomination.

Captain Phillips was based on a true story.  This is another docudrama from director Paul Greengrass, filmed in his signature (and potentially nausea-inducing) handheld style.  (Actually, if any aspiring director wants to understand how to effectively use the handheld style, Greengrass is the filmmaker to study.)  In 2009, a four Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage.  Captain Phillips was eventually rescued by a group of Navy SEALS.  Three of the pirates were killed while their leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), was captured and is currently serving a 33 year sentence in a federal penitentiary.

This was a huge news story in 2009 with the rescue being described as being the first major foreign policy victory for the new presidential administration.  When Phillips was rescued, people took to the streets and the “USA!  USA!” chant was heard.  “That’s right,” the media and the government and the chanters seemed to be exclaiming in unison, “America’s back!  We were abused and it’s never going to happen again!”

A lot of that jubilation was because, at the time, the term “Somali pirates” conjured up visions of cinematic villains who would be more at home in Mad Max: Fury Road than in the real world.  The reality of the situation, of course, was that the “pirates,” whose deaths were celebrated as some sort of political victory for the government, were actually poverty-stricken Somali teenagers, the majority of which worked for warlords who remained (and still remain) safely hidden away.

One of the more interesting things about Captain Phillips is that it devotes almost as much time to the Somali pirates as it does to Phillips and his crew.  Rather than presenting them as a nameless and personalityless threat, the film allows Muse and his men to emerge as individuals.  Much as Phillips spends the movie trying to keep both himself and his crew safe, Muse spends much of the movie trying to keep an increasingly out-of-control situation stable.  Both Phillips and Muse are in over their heads.  Barkhad Abdi gives a smart and intimidating performance as Muse.  The film never makes the mistake of excusing the actions of Muse or the other pirates but, at the same time, it does provide a more nuanced view of them than one would normally expect.

But really, this film totally belongs to Tom Hanks.  Captain Phillips works because of Tom Hanks.  It earned its best picture nomination on the strength of Hanks’s performance.  As an actor, Hanks could have easily coasted on the good will that the audience would have already had for him but instead, he fully commits himself to playing not Tom Hanks but instead Captain Richard Phillips.  The film’s final scene — in which Phillips goes into a state of shock and can’t stop talking — is a masterclass in great acting.  How the Academy ignored it, I will never understand.

Captain Phillips was nominated for best picture of 2013.  However, it lost to 12 Years a Slave.

 

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