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Non-Review Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is the tensest thriller of the year, no small accomplishment when you consider that director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray are working from a high-profile true story that unfolded across media less than a decade ago. “This story is getting a play here,” a naval negotiator is advised a little over half-way into the film, and it’s hard to imagine that anybody going to see the film isn’t loosely familiar with the events (and outcome) of this Somali pirate attack.

Despite this, Greengrass manages to ratchet up the tension on Captain Phillips, turning it into a high-stakes thriller. Even knowing the inevitable outcome, Greengrass pushes the audience to the edge of their seats, refusing to allow the movie to throttle down from the moment that two unidentified blips appear on the trawler’s sonar screen.

Movie piracy really is bad...

Movie piracy really is bad…

There’s an elegant simplicity to Captain Phillips, an endearing directness. Tom Hanks anchors the movie, with a very small circle of co-stars to bounce off. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi does a wonderful job as the film’s antagonist, Muse, but the focus on Captain Phillips is kept tightly on Tom Hanks as the eponymous naval officer who finds himself navigating crisis after crisis. That said, Hanks is really the best choice for a role like this, his undeniable “everyman” quality lending the movie a strange low-key vibe.

Despite its impressive scale – including some breath taking cinematography and top-notch action sequences – Captain Phillips feels like a very intimate film. Although Greengrass is well capable of going big when he needs, most of Captain Phillips remains locked tightly on Tom Hanks as Captain Richard “Rich” Phillips. Despite the fact that it unfolds on the wide open scenes, the hostage sequences of Captain Phillips feel beautifully claustrophobic, with Greengrass managing to create the sense that the characters are tripping over one another, locked in a pressure cooker.

All at sea...

All at sea…

Billy Ray’s script is pretty straight to the point. We get a brief introductory sequence that barely features Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife, providing all we need to know about our lead character. He’s blue collar, he’s not especially well-educated, he modestly sees himself as an everyman who stumbled into the role of Captain by the virtue of simply being there. Similarly, we’re given some efficient context-establishing scenes in Somali that introduce us to the pirates of the region, both neatly contrasting their working routine with that of Phillips and making Muse a great deal more sympathetic than he might otherwise be.

This lean efficiency means that Captain Phillips can some times be a bit blunt, especially when dealing with Muse and the pirates. The economy of language helps create a genuinely unsettling atmosphere, suggesting that every syllable is important, and that lives may rest in the dramatic pause nestled between sub-clauses of a sentence. On the other hand, it also means that the movie’s exploration of Muse’s motivations feels a little awkward – particularly when juxtaposed to the work-a-day concerns of the crew.

It's pretty easy to get on board with this...

It’s pretty easy to get on board with this…

A lot of this works due to the endearingly business-man-like approach adopted by Muse. He’s just a guy looking for a pay-day, rather than a monologuing psychopath. He looks like he could give seminars on effective hostage-taking. “No Al Qaeda!” Muse repeatedly assures the Americans around him, knowing the buzz words. “Just business.” He repeatedly described himself as “a fisherman”, making it clear that hijacking boats is the only way for him to enjoy a sustainable lifestyle.

“It’s just tax,” he rationalises at one point, suggesting that he wasn’t being completely dishonest when he described himself as “Somali Coast Guard” earlier on; he’s just bitterly ironic. “You had a way out and thirty thousand dollars and that wasn’t enough for you?” Phillips demands of Muse at one point. Muse replies, “I got bosses.” Phillips sighs, “We’ve all got bosses.” While providing Muse and his team with motivation and offering some context for their actions, Captain Phillips occasionally overplays its hand, particularly when it tries to equate Muse’s standing in the world with the crew working on the Alabama.

Everything's pretty far from ship-shape...

Everything’s pretty far from ship-shape…

The film moves so ruthlessly and so efficiently that there’s not a lot of time for nuance. Jumping from Muse’s worries about how his “bosses” will react to his failure to bring home the goods to the crew on the Alabama worrying about their union rights feels just a little clumsy, and represents the biggest dramatic misstep in an otherwise superb piece of cinema.

Then again, it isn’t that big a problem. Captain Phillips rockets along despite a runtime of more than two hours. It’s a tight and pacy film. Greengrass is able to rely on Hanks and Abdi in front of the camera, so he’s free to manage some of the movie’s fantastically tense set pieces. The early attack on the freighter is one of the best sequences of the year, a genuine biting-the-fingernails master class in suspense. The film’s second half is a more intimate thriller, but Greengrass balances the ever-increasing scale of the situation with claustrophobic hostage crisis with deft skill.

Under siege...

Under siege…

Greengrass’ shakey cam helps give the movie bona fides sea legs. With the camera rocking back and forth during interior scenes, the audience never forgets that Phillips and the hijackers are stuck in the middle of the wide open ocean, at the mercy of the tides and currents – a long way from civilisation. It occasionally gets just a little bit overwhelming, particularly when contrasted with Greengrass’ sweeping establishing shots, but it does give the movie a very concrete sense of place.

For his part, Hanks is stronger than he has been in quite some time. Captain Phillips reminds us why Hanks is a regular Oscar contender, and how effortless he makes everything look, trekking to hell and back. Richard Phillips isn’t the most extroverted character, and the movie doesn’t give us too much information about him outside the opening scene, but Hanks imbues the character with an incredible sense of humanity, giving the movie an emotional core and helping Greengrass to keep the movie intimate, despite the presence of gigantic freighters and massive loading docks and even military cruise ships.

He's just going outside, and he may be some time...

He’s just going outside, and he may be some time…

Captain Phillips is a delightful thriller, and a wonderful treat at this time of year. After a fairly lacklustre summer, it looks like we’re in for an enjoyable autumn.

8 Responses

  1. I just got back from this movie and I have to say, it’s one of my favorites of the year. Sure, they could have went a bit deeper with these characters, but when the tension was this sweat-inducing, the acting was this top-notch, and the ending this pleasing, yet also somewhat sad as well, then I couldn’t really be bothered. Greengrass did exactly what Ben Affleck couldn’t for me in Argo: He made me be on the edge of my seat about something I already knew the end result to, and that’s worth the highest amount of credit in my book. As always, solid review.

  2. Nice review Darren! I wholeheartedly agree!
    When are you going to do a review for Gravity? Can’t wait to see what you have to say about it!

    • Thanks Alex. Gravity isn’t out here for a while, so I won’t see it until next Monday. But I am really looking forward to it.

  3. The ship was Alabama not Arizona (???)

  4. Quite a good, exciting, gripping movie.

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