The new Paul Greengrass thriller Captain Phillips won't make an awards-season appearance this week at the Toronto Film Festival, but Sony is hardly keeping it under wraps. In addition to a New York Film Festival premiere before its October 11 release, the studio began screening it in earnest this week for press, and execs there are clearly confident that they have an Oscar contender on their hands. Now that I have seen the film, I've got to concur … but that's not to say that the path to the Academy Awards comes without complications.
Based on the true story of a 2009 attack by Somali pirates on a U.S. container ship, the film stars Tom Hanks as the titular captain, who goes toe-to-toe with the clever, determined pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) in an attempt to save both his crew and his bounty. Greengrass tells the story in a manner that recalls both Zero Dark Thirty and his own September 11 docudrama United 93, shooting the action with a documentary-like realism and employing chronological, cross-cut ruthlessness to drive momentum. With few exceptions, the movie doesn't stop for traditional Big Oscar Moments … there simply isn't time.
So what will Oscar voters make of it? Here are our best guesses in the major categories in which Captain Phillips should prove most competitive.
United 93 juuuuust barely missed out on a Best Picture nomination back in 2006, but Paul Greengrass defied the odds by scoring a nod that year in the Best Director category. If anything, his work on Captain Phillips is even more accomplished: Handed a big star, a big budget, and a challenging shoot on water, Greengrass sacrifices none of his fluid style, and the movie becomes unbearably tense by its final half-hour. Unless the directors branch decides to defy conventional wisdom again (let's not forget that Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed last year for the somewhat similar Zero Dark Thirty, also put out by Sony), Greengrass is virtually certain to crack the category, making him the film's most likely nominee.
Hard as it is to believe, Tom Hanks hasn't been nominated for an Academy Award since Cast Away in 2000. The two-time winner hasn't exactly sworn off awards bait entirely — Road to Perdition, Charlie Wilson's War, and The Terminal were all potential Oscar vehicles — but for whatever reason, the Academy hasn't bitten as of late. Can Captain Phillips turn the tide? At first while watching, we were inclined to say no: For most of the film's running time, Hanks delivers what may be the least showy performance of his career, since Phillips remains calm, even-keeled, and deferential even in the face of danger and potential death. It isn't until the very end of the film, when the character has back-to-back scenes of explosive emotional catharsis, that Hanks really gets to go all out; were you to pull a clip from his performance for the Oscar telecast, you'd almost certainly have to select something from the last ten minutes of the movie. Those last few scenes may be enough to push Oscar voters over the top, but the Best Actor category is so brutally tough this year that even a veteran like Hanks is no guarantee. Can he make the cut over other actors — like Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club — who appear to have pushed themselves to the limit in draining, physical, transformative roles?
Best Supporting Actor
Supporting Actor may be the most unsettled major category at the moment; aside from buzzed-about performances by Daniel Bruhl (in Rush) and Michael Fassbender (in 12 Years a Slave), few of the potential contenders have even been seen yet. That could leave room for Barkhad Abdi to gain momentum as the film's antagonist; a first-time actor with a powerful presence, he's onscreen as much as Hanks (if not more), and the film makes some stabs to humanize him, providing the motivation and backstory for his bad deeds. Still, this is a category often dominated by veteran actors at the expense of newcomers, as Dwight Henry found out last year when he was completely passed over for Beasts of the Southern Wild; you'd have to go all the way back to 1996, when Edward Norton was nominated for Primal Fear, to find someone who made the Best Supporting Actor short list for his debut film.
Do I think Captain Phillips will be nominated for Best Picture? At this point, I do: It's an impressive feat of moviemaking, likely to catch on at the box office. That said, I heard one notion advanced after my screening that though Captain Phillips is based on a true story, the optics of this film — where wild-eyed black villains attack decent, hard-working white people — may make some Academy members uncomfortable and could seem out of step with a cinematic year that boasts Fruitvale Station, The Butler, and the soon-to-come awards season juggernaut 12 Years a Slave. (Greengrass's roving camera does briefly show two black characters who work on the hijacked ship, but they don't get any lines.) I did notice how in the first scene, Phillips has a conversation with his wife about how the world they're leaving their children is a much more scary one than they grew up with; more than just an articulation of the movie's theme, it's also a conservative talking point. Might the Fox News set champion Captain Phillips? If so, I expect some whiplash at Sony, since the right-wing channel gave their last Oscar contender, Zero Dark Thirty, such a pounding in the press.