NYFF: Will ‘Captain Phillips’ be this year’s ‘Argo’?

A nail-biting, crowd-pleasing docudrama that tells the true story of an American operation to rescue innocent hostages. That describes the plot of “Captain Phillips,” about the hijacking of a shipping freighter by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa. But it also describes “Argo,” about the CIA’s rescue of hostages from Iran. “Argo” won the Oscar for Best Picture last year. Can “Captain Phillips” do the same?

“Argo” also had the benefit of an ensemble cast full of recognizable stars, including Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Bryan Cranston, and director Ben Affleck. That’s usually an important factor in winning Best Picture; sometimes a film without A-list actors can win (“Hurt Locker,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), but those are exceptions to the rule.

“Captain Phillips” only has one A-list star, but it’s hard to get more A-list than Tom Hanks, who could be considered overdue for more awards recognition despite having won two Oscars out of five nominations. After all, he hasn’t been a contender since “Cast Away” in 2000. That was 13 years ago, which is longer than it took for him to accumulate those nominations and wins in the first place. Later this year he also plays the legendary Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks,” so he could be poised for a major Oscar comeback.

“Phillips” and “Argo” also have in common directors with proven Oscar track records. Affleck had already won a screenwriting Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” and directed two Oscar-nominated films (“Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”) before he entered the race with “Argo.”

“Phillips” director Paul Greengrass, meanwhile, earned a Best Director bid for “United 93,” another tense real-life drama about a major event in recent American history. And though his “Bourne Ultimatum” was snubbed in acting, writing, directing, and Best Picture categories – likely written off as a lowly popcorn movie by many Oscar voters – it nevertheless won an impressive three prizes in craft categories: Editing, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing.

Those successes put Greengrass squarely on the Academy’s radar, especially for those who think he probably should have won for “United.” (That was 2006, the year Martin Scorsese finally cashed in his Oscar IOU with “The Departed.”) Combined with the strong reviews “Phillips” received when it premiered at the New York Film Festival, he could be well positioned for his first turn in the winner’s circle.

Then again, “Captain Phillips” could instead follow the trajectory of a less successful film in last year’s race: “Zero Dark Thirty,” another tense docudrama about a heroic American operation. It was a critics’ darling and was nominated for Best Picture, but only won one of its five bids: Best Sound Editing.

Luckily for “Phillips,” though, it doesn’t have to carry the extra political baggage that may be what derailed “Zero” in the awards derby: there are no morally murky issues about torture and terrorism in play, and thus far no major attacks for its accuracy. That could change, however, if the film starts to pull ahead in the race; is there a chance we’ll see a rival studio recruit some Swiftboat Veterans for Truth later on in the derby, or will it be smooth sailing for this ship’s “Captain”?

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