Film Review – Captain Phillips
The inherent challenge of a film like Captain Phillips is in telling a gripping story that many people already know the outcome of. I remember vividly Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that was taken by Somali pirates back in 2009. It was the first American ship to be hijacked in over two hundred years, and for a short while captured the attention of the entire world. Headlines documented the latest news as it unfolded, including the dangerous hours Captain Phillips was held in a lifeboat with the pirates, and the daring rescue mission orchestrated by the military to get him back. Now, years later, we know what eventually happened to all those involved (if you’re still wondering about that, check to see who wrote the book the film was based on). But even with that knowledge, we still get one of the most intense and suspenseful movies of the year.
Credit goes to director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray, who strip the narrative down to its bare essentials. There is very little unnecessary information provided, and once the plot starts rolling, it continues to build momentum all the way to the end. After a fairly weak opening where Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) discuss their family situation in expository fashion, we kick into high gear, where nearly every moment is used to keep us on edge. It’s quite the accomplishment for Greengrass, who once again uses his kinetic, hand-held camera to photograph events with a level of unpredictability. Here the approach capitalizes on the uneasy tone of the conflict, where any wrong move could lead to disaster. Like in United 93 (2006), Greengrass tells his story not in an exploitative manner, but to honor those who were forced to go through such extraordinary circumstances.
I knew how everything would resolve, but what fascinated me the most were the details of the events. The procedure used by the Americans and the pirates was almost like a chess game between two opponents. I didn’t know the pirates would make two attempts before they would take the Alabama, or how Phillips tried to sink their skiff by employing emergency hoses off the boat’s railing, or how he would turn the boat back and forth to cause disruptive waves. Phillips and his crew employed amazing ingenuity to thwart their captors from taking the ship, from shutting down all power to the main deck to cutting out interior lights to prevent the pirates from finding the crew inside the hull. There was even a moment—realizing military help would not arrive in time—where Phillips faked an S.O.S. call over the radio, which very nearly worked. All of the tension is built upon the potential for violence, not violence itself. Phillips, his crew, and the military had to use their smarts to overcome their obstacle.
Tom Hanks—once again—is fantastic in his role. He doesn’t play Phillips as a hero, but as a regular person who only tried to do what was in his power. He never comes off as overly brave, and during certain stretches emotes a level of vulnerability all too understandable for the kind of ordeal he went through. The true surprise is from newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirate leader Muse. I never knew Muse was a real person until seeing this, and Abdi incorporates many different emotional peaks in his performance. He is not a sympathetic character—we are never asked to feel sorry for him—but he is much more complex than we would imagine. From the very moment he steps on board the Alabama, Muse tries to force his will to get what he wants, even while all of his plans fall apart. He is capable of violent means (even against his own people), but knows not to go too far. Muse is a smart kid; he knows the potential consequences of his actions. But growing up in extreme poverty develops a willingness to use desperate measures (it makes one wonder what kind of life he lived to think piracy would be his only way out).
There is not much to criticize here; Greengrass has made a gritty thriller with Captain Phillips. The further it goes along, the tenser it becomes. It works both as a straight story and as a detailed record of what happened during those perilous few days. We don’t get a lot of character development; it performs more as a procedural. Even though the ending is well known, the suspense is tangible, made through expert craftsmanship and authentic acting. Not at any moment did I feel the 134-minute runtime. It skips right along, with everything feeling contained within one long scene. By the time we reach the climax, any thought about the actual story is gone, and all we care about is how this story will conclude. Very few films this year will leave an audience as breathless as this one.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzU3UJuV80w&w=560&h=315]