Un-heroic adventures

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou


One does not spoil the end of Captain Phillips by stating that its main character is saved. The story on which the film is based is fairly known, but most importantly no one can imagine a film where harm comes to Tom Hanks. Perhaps this has to do with the actor’s (un?)enviable position today as an American treasure (Manohla Dargis has astutely remarked the “old-fashioned American decency” that the actor projects, although James Stewart would be a more fitting comparison than Gary Cooper). One of the merits of Paul Greengrass’ film is that he manages to build – and sustain – suspense until the end, despite these facts.

Captain Phillips is a fascinating paradox of a film. Located somewhere between drama and thriller, it is a large scale Hollywood film concerned with the details of personal confrontation, that are played out against a backdrop of global inequalities and US military might. Paul Greengrass avoids portraying the captain as an unquestionable hero (Tom Hanks relies on wit and resilience to make it through his ordeal, but both the director and Billy Ray, the film’s writer, dispense with unnecessary clichés), while also avoiding the temptation to cast the Somali pirates as the villains of his story. They are people. Granted, not particularly nice people, but the choice to depict them as such brings an unusual depth to the film, absent in most Hollywood fare, of this budget and subject matter at least.

The final scene of the film provides the perfect summation of its themes, even though it was unscripted and improvised (as Indiewire exclusively reported). It ties masterfully with the scene of Tom Hanks discussing the future of his children with his wife en route to the airport, at the beginning of the film. With a few broad strokes, Billy Ray manages to convey the agony of the parents about the changing world they live in, and the harsher realities their children have to face. Catherine Keener then turns to her husband for reassurance: “I hear what you’re saying. But it’s gonna be OK, right?” – to which Tom Hanks replies with a less than certain “Oh yeah…gonna be OK”. In the end, it’s the medical officer examining the captain that keeps repeating this mantra, “It’s gonna be OK…everything’s gonna be OK”. But the final shot of an emotionally devastated Tom Hanks (in what is, quite possibly, the finest performance of his career), covered in the blood of the Somali pirates, and the orange speck of the lifeboat that they used to abduct him, quietly bobbing behind the US navy ship, leave the viewer with a sense of profound unease: what exactly is going to be OK?