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Review: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Sets an Open Course for Action

The short review: Stunningly shot and laden with Oscar-caliber performances from the likes of Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a harrowing, tense adaptation of true events that will leave you breathless.

The long review: The problem with stories based on true events is, in many cases, that we already know how it’s going to end. Spoiler alert: Captain Phillips survives being kidnapped by pirates off of the Somali coast. Unless he had incredible foresight and a vivid imagination, there would be no other way for him to write the memoir on which =Paul Greengrass’ film is based. The challenge from a filmmaking perspective then becomes, how do you present the story and how do you keep the audience invested and engaged when the conclusion is all but foregone. With an eloquent script from The Hunger Games co-writer Billy Ray and powerful, deeply human performances from Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi as an anchor, Greengrass gives us a Hollywood biopic done right, a multi-faceted examination of a tense, terrifying situation and also the grim realities facing a nation like Somalia.

Tom Hanks

Based on the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. commercial container ship Maersk Alabama by a small crew of Somali pirates and the subsequent kidnapping of Captain Richard Phillips, the film wisely focuses on the relationship between Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and Muse, the Somali pirate captain (Barkhad Abdi) and Phillips’ jailer, during the taking of the Alabama and the subsequent standoff 145 miles off the Somali coast. Dealing with forces beyond their control, Greengrass explores the nuances of the realities of piracy in the region, setting the grim realities of globalization against a gripping backdrop of action and adventure. It would be easy to paint them as almost comic villains, but Greengrass depicts them as men who are forced into a life of criminal activity by brutal warlords, oppressive regimes, and crippling poverty. This is not a malicious act; rather, as Muse tells Phillip when he first boards the vessel through a mouthful of khat, “It’s just business.”

Phillips’ relationship with the pirates and the tense game of cat-and-mouse on the Maersk are deeply affecting, and the Captain’s eventual rescue is almost bittersweet. Like in the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Zero Dark Thirty, it is stomach-turning and compelling at the same time, forcing the viewer to celebrate and ruminate all at once. However, the payoff is there: an unscripted scene in which Phillips, having finally been rescued, is taken to the medical bay of the American ship and he is in utter shock as the ship’s medical staff tries to debrief and examine him. Raw, visceral and profoundly primal, Hanks is at his most transformative in those final moments as a man who, under incredible duress, managed to keep his cool and at long last can finally begin to process the terrible reality of the ordeal through which has just gone.

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While generally excellent, the film’s major fault is that it runs about 30 minutes too long, and given Greengrass’ apparent aversion to using a tripod, it may behoove you to pop a pre-screening dramamine so you don’t get seasick. The film’s first hour is more effectively paced than its conclusion, but the thrilling nature and the jaw-dropping action sequences that occur during the standoff between the Somali pirates and the US Navy is almost enough to forgive Greengrass his cinematic sins. To say this is a seminal film may be too soon, but I feel no such hesitation in telling you that this is easily one of the best films I have seen this year, a traumatic experience given the appropriate amount of gravitas and brought to life through some truly towering performances. Oscars, ahoy.

Captain Phillips is in theaters everywhere today. Stay tuned for my interview with star Barkhad Abdi later today, then let us know what you think in the comments below or reach out directly on Twitter.

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7 comments

  • I kinda wondered just how jingoistic this film would be, since, in fact, there is an extremely low percentage of deaths at the hands of Somali pirates, and there are a few reported cases of pirates actually protecting fishermen from American security firms (who fired indiscriminately at every small vessel they encountered). I read an estimate that deaths of innocent fishermen are roughly double deaths at the hands of pirates, but the fishermen are under-reported. Hmm, wonder why? ; [

    Greengrass acts like he’s just trying to be frank, but he seems like a bit of an opportunist to me, like he’s trying to please everybody. He leaves things SO up to the viewer that it’s entirely possible for a fearful bigot to walk in looking for reinforcement of his fearful bigotry, and walk out with exactly that. I know that’s generally considered a more artistic approach and all, but personally, I couldn’t care less. It’s just not worth it.

  • @RG, I appreciate and understand your POV, but I don’t think a film like this is the canvas against which they can realistically investigate things like that fishermen statistic. Perhaps, though, amongst enlightened viewers like yourself, it will renew interest in the issue of piracy and these security firms.

    Regarding the level of jingoism present in the film, I guess that depends on how one reacts to it. Fearful bigots will most likely be fearful bigots even after they see CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Personally, I felt a relief at Phillips getting rescued coupled with a queasiness at how the military handled the situation and manipulated Muse. I think Greengrass trying to be “frank” is apt because it seemed like he was just trying to present things in a documentary style (as he’s wont to do). Unfortunately, as you mentioned, that can be a double-edged sword.

  • Sure, the fishermen thing is only sort of an adjacent issue, and wasn’t meant as a dig at the subjects/producers/viewers of the film or anybody else.

    And it’s definitely a very tough process, figuring out how to create something that makes a serious impact without digging an even deeper trench between opposing viewpoints. Anything that leans too far either direction, and it’s attacked for being too lenient OR too heavy-handed, so putting myself in Greengrass’ shoes, it would be a real no-win situation. I guess the thing that raises my suspicions these days is the fact that this is the ONLY kind of film he makes; some sort of socially-conscious attempt to change the way we look at reality-based art–even just a statement–would be a welcome addition to his filmography.

    That said, I don’t mean to say that’s a valid reason to dismiss it, by any means. Questioning its social responsibility will only be valid after I’ve actually… you know… SEEN it. Heheh.