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Captain Phillips (2013)

| October 12, 2013 | 0 Comments

“Captain Phillips” is a cold-water treatment for anyone who regards pirates solely based on what they see at the movies – or on the internet for that matter.  If your mental imagery of high seas plunderers begins and ends with Jack Sparrow, then you’re in for a shock when director Paul Greengrass puts his arm around your shoulder and shows you – in cold, spare detail – how it works in the real world.

The story of “Captain Phillips” is based on the 2009 attempted high jacking of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama, 200 miles off the coast of Somalia, and the subsequent kidnapping of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks).  Little time is wasted on getting things rolling.  We are hardly 20 minutes into the film when the pirates, driving two skiff boats, begin closing in on the ship which they choose because it is the only ship in the region that isn’t sailing close to another ship.  Greengrass bypasses a lot of introductory scenes in an attempt to keep the story lean and spare.  He establishes only that Phillips has a wife (Catherine Keener) and that the Somalis banded their pirate crew together early that morning on the beach, like employers looking for day laborers.  After that, the movie is full-steam ahead into a white-knuckle thriller that Greengrass is able to keep tense even when we know how it ends.

The scenes of the takeover are laid out with scary precision.  The Alabama attempts to subvert the takeover by first outrunning and then out-maneuvering the skiff.  The action is presented with such dramatic tension that we begin to think, for a moment, that the Alabama might be able to avoid the takeover.   That, of course, is not the truth.  The ship is boarded by four young Somali men who are skinny, frightened and waving machine guns.

We learn only what we need to know about the characters.  Phillips is shown as a man of experience, who is able to improvise at crucial moments.  Hanks downplays his performance by making it mostly reactionary.  He doesn’t pose for effect, but simply plays to the moment.  He saves his one huge emotional moment for last.  Hanks is an actor who is as familiar to us as a favorite cousin, and after 33 years of acting in professional films, we think that we might have seen everything that his acting arsenal might have to offer.  He has a moment in this film of near-emotional meltdown that is startling.  It is a moment that, up until now, this fine actor has never been able to display.

The pirates themselves redefine the words “rag-tag.”  There are only four men left when the hijack actually happens – several others abandoned the mission.  At first they seem like movie types:  There’s a hard-eyed leader, a hot-head, a scared kid, and one guy who might be mistaken for having a soul.  They have a goal in mind, but these are not professional criminals.  They are scared, violent and hard-headed.  Early and often, they make stupid mistakes because, determined as they are, they’re not exactly brainiacs.

Most of their focus comes from the leader, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Adbi) who earns no sympathy even when he tells Phillips his reasons for taking the ship – he, like, Phillips, has people to answer to.  Adbi is an untrained actor making his film debut and is already earning buzz as a possible Oscar contender.  It might be well earned.  He doesn’t play Muse as irrational.  There’s something in his eyes that tells us that he is determined to take this crisis to a tragic end.  We actually begin to believe that in other circumstances, he could make an effective leader – or a fearsome warlord.

Greengrass keeps the film lean and sharp.  He builds tension, not out of phony manipulation, but based on circumstance and fact.  He’s an old hat at this kind of thing.  He previously directed “Bloody Sunday”, about the 1972 Irish civil rights march and subsequent massacre by British troops.  He also made the brilliant “United 93” about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11th.

He’s a craftsman who knows how to stage a real-life action scenes without pumping it full of phony drama.  He sticks to the moment.  “Captain Phillips” is a very well-made recreation of a real-life event.  What it does it does very well.  It doesn’t have much meaning beyond itself, however.  It is an incident that happened in real life, but there are not a lot of personal details.  Once it’s over you’re only left with a great thriller.  As with “United 93,” (which was my favorite film of 2006) Greengrass wants to stick to the facts, and not burden the film with side-stories.  That’s probably best because he’s better at the documentary details than he is with characters and personal drama.  Still, this is probably the most effective thriller you’ll see all year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Drama, Recent