‘Captain Phillips’ Early Reviews: Is Tom Hanks’ Thriller Oscar Bound?

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Critics praise Paul Greengrass’ direction, but some grouse the film is preachy

Paul Greengrass‘ “Captain Phillips” promises to plunge viewers into a tense hostage situation, and based on the early reviews, it delivers.

The film stars Tom Hanks as an American captain captured by a band of Somali pirates and held for ransom on a tiny life boat. Distributor Sony Pictures thinks it has a rare film that can deliver box office punch while vying for Oscar attention. Initial notices suggest the film is built to ride from both a commercial and plaudit perspective.

“Captain Phillips” hits theaters on Oct. 11, so many reviewers have yet to weigh in, but it has the wind at its back in early going. To be sure, there were detractors, but the overall impression was that Hanks and Greengrass had made a true-to-life tale that is both compelling and suspenseful.

Also read: ‘Captain Phillips’ Review: Taut Suspense, Iffy Racial Politics, Unfussy Tom Hanks

In a mixed review, Alonso Duralde of TheWrap praised Greengrass’ direction as taut, but said there’s an air of the “White Man’s Burden” to its depiction of the Somali pirates.

“While Phillips comes off as resourceful, brave and dedicated, his captors more often than not resemble zombies — Greengrass often shoots them in a way that makes their eyes invisible, rendering them soulless,” Duralde wrote. “The group’s leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gets in a few lines about how his people are victimized by larger nations (who have overfished the waters) and the local warlords (who pocket whatever fortunes these pirates manage to pilfer), but he mostly comes off as a mere monster, constantly chewing khat leaves and glowering.”

Duralde’s unease over the racial politics of “Captain Phillips” could not be detected in a glowing review by the Huffington Post’s Mike Ryan, who lauded the film for humanizing the men wielding the guns.

Also read: 7 of Fall’s Burning Box-Office Questions: Will Horror Rule Again? Can Tom Hanks Get His Groove Back?

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 4.49.37 PM“By the time the attack finally happens, we know these people,” Ryan wrote. “We don’t like what they are doing, but there’s just enough familiarity with them (due, too, to the wonderful performances of Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali) that we just wish they’d stop all of this before someone gets hurt. (Unfortunately, if you know the true story, you know this is unavoidable.)”

HitFix’s Kris Tapley was already filling out Academy members’ ballots after seeing the film,  predicting a trip to the Oscar ceremony for Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi.

Paul Greengrass‘ ‘Captain Phillips’ is plainly one of the best films of the year,” Tapley wrote. “It’s the best work the director has offered to date and it features a detailed, ultimately emotional performance from Tom Hanks that is sure to draw kudos.”

In The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy marveled at Greengrass’ ability to generate excitement and ratchet up the tension without pressing his points too firmly.

“The film rips right along and never relinquishes its grip,” McCarthy wrote. “The format of the last-minute heroics goes back to the earliest Westerns and could well be accused of patness or being cliched — other than for the fact that it’s what happened. Unsurprisingly, though, the director indulges in no jingoistic, rah-rah stuff with the Navy, even if it has not often been the case that American military operations in the Middle East have come off exactly as planned.”

Eric Kohn agreed that Greengrass’ natural kinetic touch is well suited to the material, but argued in IndieWire that he could have cut down on the finger wagging when it came to the story’s political elements.

“It’s hard to imagine ‘Captain Phillips’ in the hands of any other filmmaker — and ‘Captain Phillips’ in the hands of Greengrass looks exactly like anyone familiar with his work would expect,” Kohn wrote. “It does justice to the material even while playing too conscientiously by the book. For better or worse, Greengrass’ virtuous approach is a thinkpiece on imperialism that’s been smuggled into commercial escapism.”

One of the few critics who enjoyed the film and called it “well-made,” but felt it would be a difficult sell for Oscars and audiences was Variety’s Scott Foundas, who wrote that it “…should spark a flurry of awards buzz for star Tom Hanks and powerful Somali newcomer Barkhad Abdi, but may prove too grueling to make major waves with Academy voters or the multiplex crowd.”

Of course, “Zero Dark Thirty” wasn’t exactly light and fluffy and that seemed to do fine with both constituencies.