Captain Phillips ReviewOctober 19, 2013
Paul Greengrass is a director widely regarded for a signature style of shaky cam, quick edits and gritty realism that have been central to numerous successful action thrillers over the past decade. The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum were both excellent action films, while his work on United 93 solidified him as a filmmaker that was also very sensitive to world issues on both ends of the conflict. I was excited for Captain Phillips since it is also based on a true story like his 9/11 masterpiece; has Paul Greengrass once again delivered on thrills and human drama?
Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is the captain of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo freighter. In April 2009, Captain Phillips and his crew set course for Mombasa, Kenya, but one day after entering Somali waters the ship begins to be followed by a pair of pirate skiffs. Only one skiff continued its course to the Alabama after the pirates discovered that Captain Phillips was aware of their intentions, and eventually that crew of four Somali pirates hijacked the ship. Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of this group of pirates, then commandeers the Alabama and demands that Richard Phillips guides him through the entire ship to see if there is anything of interest beyond cash. With that, the struggle of both Phillips and his crew to escape their situation begins.
For me, nothing from Paul Greengrass can even compare to the lasting effect of United 93, considering that it is based upon one of the darkest days in our nation’s history. Still, with Captain Phillips – another dramatization of an American incident – it would be an understatement to say that he strikes an emotional chord. In fact, it is one of the more intense, harrowing moviegoing experiences of the year. When considering Captain Phillips as a militaristic action thriller, director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray (known for the film adaptation of The Hunger Games) do well enough to craft a story that is riveting from beginning to end. Plenty of this raw intensity comes from the aesthetics and staging at play here, but plenty comes from the excellent script as well. The dialogue often feels natural and authentic, never feeling manipulative or exploitative of the characters. This of course comes from the filmmaker’s respect for both sides of the conflict: even if the Somali pirates are the ones we should be fearing, by the end I came to care for Phillips, his crew and even the pirates. In that sense, this story is realistic not only in its representation of the events at hand but showing us real people. Interestingly enough though, Captain Phillips takes things further and makes statements on individual and collective (as in economic) goals. The film opens as if the Alabama’s voyage and a potential raid are simple business routines; however, once the story unfolds we see the opposing goals and personalities of both Phillips and Muse clash, while they also have similar power struggles. One could then imagine if this was an incidental parallel to capitalism and how people are always at odds with one another, which is only made more curious once we see the way the military (in a larger sense, the American government) intervenes with the situation at hand later on.
Tom Hanks is one of the best actors of the past few decades, so it is almost a cliche to say that he gives a good performance in every film he is a part of. Even so, I must say that this is the best performance he is given in years, and in that sense one can only wonder if he will receive yet another Oscar nomination. What is great about this particular performance is that it accentuates the theme of power at work here, for initially we see a man who seemingly had a firm grip on his situation; however, as the plot of Captain Phillips progresses, so does the development of its character, which we mainly see through Tom Hanks. Eventually, by the final shot of the film we have learned more about the character from Tom Hanks’ emotionally-grounded work, and as a result he has delivered one of his most realistic performances. The actors portraying the pirates were also impressive; their commitment to being intimidating was convincing enough for me to believe that they could frighten an actor as seasoned as Tom Hanks. Barkhad Abdi is a key standout as the leader of this small band, Muse, for not only is he frightening but conveys a shred of genuine humanity that is echoes in his co-stars playing the pirates.
Captain Phillips is a film with that clearly has Paul Greengrass’ stamp – fast edits, quick zooms, shaky camera work and an innate sense of realism – and it is all the better for it, since he is a master of the sort of style that normally plagues modern Hollywood action films. Not only is this film pieced together well enough to make it a consistently suspenseful thriller from beginning to end, the action is coherent and exciting, the scenes are palpable with tension, and the environments feel suitably claustrophic. It is a film rife with strong imagery and intense sequences, and these two things go hand in hand to make for a very intense thriller. The last 10 minutes of the film are also the most shocking, powerful moments seen in cinema this year. Much of the film’s tension is also traceable to Henry Jackman’s haunting score; he is steadily becoming one of the most promising composers working in Hollywood, and his score for this film solidifies that his music can hold tension in a scene. Complimenting the film in the way that music was used in United 93, the soundtrack is subtly utilized in the picture, slowly building until the emotionally-charged climax.
This is no perfect thriller, for there is a point shortly after the second half where Captain Phillips begins to feel slightly tedious. Still, this is one of the best films I have seen this year, for Paul Greengrass has once again proven that he is the perfect director for modern Hollywood thrillers. Comprised of consistent suspense, a great screenplay, intense visuals and some truly incredible performances (chiefly from Tom Hanks), Captain Phillips is a fantastic dramatization of a heroic true story. Like last year’s Argo, this is a true-life thriller that will generate some genuine awards discussion in the next couple of months, and deservedly so.