We all like to think that we would behave in a heroic fashion when put in a stressful situation. Thankfully, very few of us will find ourselves in the sort of position Capt. Richard Phillips did on the morning of April 8, 2009, when four Somali pirates boarded his ship and eventually took him captive in a small lifeboat, beginning a four-day ordeal that would test the mettle of the bravest of men.
Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" goes out of its way — sometimes too much for its own good — to accurately re-create this trail and gives us a moving portrait of grace under fire as well as a picture of humanism that's at the core of true heroism.
That Tom Hanks would give a solid performance in the title role comes as no surprise; but the true revelation is with his four co-stars, Somali immigrants with no previous acting experience whose genuine approach to acting helps add a layer of verisimilitude that grounds the film while underscoring the story's inherent tragedy.
If Greengrass is conscious of anything in his approach, it is to create a seemingly genuine experience with tools that lend themselves more toward crafting falsehoods.
His methodology is to present both sides of this story from an objective point of view. As such, our first sight of Phillips is that of a family man, gathering his things for an upcoming voyage, sharing a ride to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener), discussing issues of family. He's a by-the-book kind of boss who checks to see if passageways on his ship are secure and, while never inviting overfamiliarity, bonds with his crew of 20 but keeps them on task. He takes seriously the warning of piracy occurring on his route, running drills and making all on board aware that they're entering dangerous waters.
These scenes are juxtaposed with those recounting the plight of a small group of Somali men, in particular that of Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), a fisherman from a small village who, along with his peers, has been left with little recourse but to do the bidding of a warlord named Caraard.
With the waters near their home depleted of fish due to the global demand for seafood and the ability of major corporations to harvest them en masse, these men are forced to hijack ships at the bidding of those above them who are looking for a big payday. Muse and his three friends — Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysal Ahmed) and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) — set out to make a name for themselves, intent on boarding and holding a large ship to acquire a big ransom.
Certainly, Greengrass is not condoning the actions of these men. But in providing their backstory, they become much more than just stock villains. We understand what drives them, as well as the sense of desperation that motivates them, humanizing them in the process and fostering a measure of sympathy for them.
Greengrass goes to great lengths with his "you-are-there" aesthetic, and for the most part, it is effective. Small, handheld digital cameras allow him to get close — sometimes uncomfortably so — to his characters, to the point that you feel as though you're eavesdropping on their conversation.
This is particularly effective during the film's last hour, which takes place in a small lifeboat that Phillips has been trapped on with his four captors. These tight quarters are rendered even more claustrophobic with this approach. However, this ends up being a double-edged sword as the director's ever-moving camera calls far too much attention to itself at times, and it's a technique that's overused. (Do I need a shaky, handheld shot of lines being cast off from shore?)
Equally troubling is his adherence to rendering the Navy Seals' rescue mission in minute detail. Taking a cue from "Zero Dark Thirty," the film nearly grinds to a halt during its third act as every single step of the action is recreated to near disastrous results. While I applaud the effort to present events as accurately as possible, in the end, it doesn't make for compelling filmmaking.
Fortunately, the cast's performances ground the story with a realism that's truly remarkable. Abdi, found through an open audition in Minneapolis, with his three co-stars, brings a raw energy and sense of danger to his role. With his sunken eyes, skeletal face and direct actions, he creates a dangerous, desperate man. It's a remarkable turn, and there's never a question but that he and his veteran co-star are sharing the screen equally.
As for Hanks, he's as solid as ever — but pay special note of the final scene in the film. He lets his guard down to achieve one of the most honest acting moments ever captured in a movie. In this moment, the actor gives us a man who has been through hell and back, finally allowed to put his brave face aside and let his fear and relief wash over him.
It's a remarkable moment and reiterates that in striving to create realism on film, a capable actor can achieve this far better than any inventive camerawork can ever hope to.
'Captain Phillips' 3-1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysai Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey and Catherine Keener.
Directed by Paul Greengrass; produced by Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Scott Rudin; screenplay by Billy Ray.
A Sony Pictures release. 134 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images and substance use) At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Stars shine in "Enough Said." (3-1/2 stars) There's an air of melancholy that hangs over Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said." Obviously, some of this is because of the untimely passing of James Gandolfini, who delivers one of his most informed performances, pointing toward what could have been a potentially vital second act in his career.
However, the movie cuts deeply where matters of the heart and errors in judgment are concerned as the filmmaker's script is full of sharply realized moments that will speak to anyone in the audience who has loved neither well nor wisely.
Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a Los Angeles masseuse who has a steady stream of clients and has settled into a routine where her personal life is concerned. She socializes with her close friends (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone), enjoys her home and spends as much time as possible with her daughter (Tracey Fairaway) who is leaving for college soon.
However, while at a posh Beverly Hills party, she meets Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet she connects with immediately, takes as a client and eventually becomes close friends with. She's also introduced to Albert (Gandolfini), a good-natured bear of a man to whom she's not attracted, but with whom she shares a moment. He gets her number, calls for a date, she agrees to go, they have a pleasant evening and, well, the magic begins.
One of the most charming aspects of the film is watching Eva and Albert fall in like, then love. Holofcener has a good ear where it comes to the interactions and dialogue that takes place between two individuals who realize that they see the world in a similar light, have a great deal in common and inexplicably feel at ease with one another.
The two leads invest the filmmaker's dialogue with the appropriate degree of guarded excitement, humorous cynicism and bitter disappointment that lends a sense of intimacy to their scenes that's all too rare in the movies. There's an obvious ease between the two performers that spills over into their roles, and their chemistry makes the film seem less calculated than the usual romantic comedy.
Still, Holofcener employs a plot device that would have been acceptable during the heyday of screwball comedies but will come off as a bit of a reach for modern audiences. It's an odd coincidence to occur in a city the size of Los Angeles, but if you think of connections made earlier in the movie, it makes sense.
In the end, this glitch makes little difference. It's the McGuffin that allows us to spend time with two charming, recognizable people who will hopefully have the wisdom to see the forest for the trees.
Nothing new in "Runner, Runner." (2 stars) While I have no reason to believe it to be so, I got the impression watching Brad Furman's "Runner Runner" that the film was made in a hurry.
What with underdeveloped characters and truncated plot points, the movie plays as if the very first draft of the script was the one that went before the camera. The bare bones of a halfway decent story are here, but far too little of it is fleshed out as there are very few intricacies where the plot is concerned, an odd thing considering the movie deals with the world of online gambling, while the characters lack any real depth, coming off as little more than stereotypes.
Justin Timberlake, failing once more to find a role that will make him a bona fide movie star, is Richie Furst, a Princeton graduate student who funds his education with his winnings from online gambling sites. After an extended losing streak that leaves him tapped out, he runs a statistical analysis on the series of wagers that led to his ruin and finds out he has been cheated.
He takes his findings to the source, traveling to Costa Rica to confront gambling tycoon Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) in the hopes of getting his loses recouped. He gets a job offer instead, and before you know it, Furst is living the high life, running much of the operation, awash in money and lusting after his boss's on-again, off-again girlfriend Rebecca (Gemma Arterton).
Of course, nothing good can come of this, and the situation becomes even more dire when FBI agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) puts the screws on Furst to turn on his boss.
If this plot summary sounds like something you've seen before, you'd be right. Granted, stories are recycled all the time in movies, but there's nothing here to make it fresh, and the fact that the two leads are miscast only exacerbates matters.
Timberlake doesn't have the presence necessary to make Furst seem as though he's ahead of the curve, and Affleck is out of his comfort zone as a ruthless tough guy. His approach to being menacing is to speak louder, and he comes off as a paper tiger rather than a cold-blooded businessman.
The one connection that is made is that if you're fool enough to see this film, you'll feel as though you've been taken, so you'll know what it feels like to be one of the saps who fall for Block's schemes.
For DVR alerts, film recommen-dations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.