Suddenly, we are seeing a spate of realistic plots in the movies. Not a trend toward monsters or vampires, but the enemy without and within. This is man vs. man, and the type of character-driven plot that in olden days Burt Lancaster or Jimmy Stewart would have rushed to play.
Captain Phillips is everyman. He is Tom Hanks, a hard-working man who is at heart, the quintessential captain willing to give his life for his ship and his men. He is the type of average hero we haven’t seen enough of in recent years on film. His character is the one who is never given enough attention in real life, and is the star of this action film.
Tom Hanks’ Captain is the one we would like to think we could be. He is the person who, under duress, becomes a hero. This film celebrates that heroism with a kind of quiet determination not seen in screenplays in recent years. The acting of Tom Hanks is one reason this film works. Someone who overplays the role would not wring the pathos and earnest steadfastness that is central to the Captain’s character.
His core beliefs are on display throughout the latter part of this awful journey. And yet, we see him as far more than simply a ship’s captain. He is trying to do the right thing by his men, and yet he displays compassion and practical wisdom that he tries to convey to his captors.
Very little of the screen time is spent with the high tech world that is achievable through our modern military. Most of the humanism that is at the core and is central to this plot emanates from Tom Hanks. He is the embodiment of the everyman and his Captain Phillips is the one we all want to be. That is the reason the film works as well as it does.
The theme of the film is isolation. Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican director who previously did, “Children of Men” is interested in exploring futures where almost all hope is lost. The premise begins with a space walk gone bad, which is a plausible enough scenario to bring realism to this science-fiction story.
George Clooney plays his supporting role with a spot-on insouciance that suits him well. His devil-may-care attitude is balanced by the sharply serious “gravity” of Bullock’s character. When the situation turns dire, the theme of isolation is a constant.
The isolation that defines deep space, and some of the surreal elements of complete separation from all aspects of life as we know it are shown as the underlying subjects of this movie. There is action, and intense drama at times that remind us of some of the most basic requirements of all good story-telling. There is the drama of man vs nature and man vs himself, and these are enough to hold us in our seats to see how it all plays out.
Bullock is the unquestionable star of the piece, as she must hold our attention through the greater part of the film. We are reminded of some of the better space dramas that play out, but in the end, this film has more in common with Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat.” Those who have read it may remember that even though the survivors are alive in an open boat on the sea, there is still grave doubt as to their survival.
The reason “The Open Boat” comes to mind is the fact that we are left wondering exactly what did happen in the latter part of all this. We are left to wonder where the storied elements blend with realism to create a real or imagined end. That is very much a trademark of Cuaron’s direction, as we watch the “gravity” of the events unfold.