Review: Captain Phillips

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Captain Phillips sets its course gently, opening with a shot of its hero’s plain home in Vermont, with as rare a stationary shot as the film will afford. However brief, its a necessary breath, for when Paul Greengrass’ new film takes to the water, the relentless chaos that ensues rarely lets up. Ever since his emergence on the action cinema stage a little over ten years ago, filmmakers have pined to achieve the same raw intensity that Greengrass effortlessly elicits, but almost none have matched him. With Captain Phillips, the director’s talents are certainly in abundance once more, and though the film contains a few excesses, its central performance from Tom Hanks anchors the film with an emotional core.

Based upon the true events that occurred in the spring of 2009, the film follows Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), an average middle class American whose occupation involves captaining massive cargo freighters through the waters of the world. His newest venture takes him around the horn of Africa past Somalia and towards Kenya. Unbeknownst to him and his crew, another captain of sorts is also setting sail on a comparatively minuscule craft, hungry to prove his strength. This second man is a Somalian known only as Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), whose upbringing and demeanor is starkly different from Phillips. Both men are on a collision course, forced into circumstances beyond their control. When Phillips’ ship is stunningly hijacked by Muse and his bare crew, he is tested to his very limits both as a professional and as a human.

As Phillips, Hanks delivers his most memorable work in years, both as a professional who manages to maintain his composure throughout much of the ordeal, as well as attempting to find compassion within himself towards his captors. The resolution to the real Phillips’ capture has been publicized at length, but I’ll still refrain from revealing details, except to say that the depths that Hanks plumbs in the final ten minutes are as genuinely moving as anything he’s ever done. It is even more shocking to say then that he is nearly bested by his costar and Barkhad Abdi who is so thoroughly convincing as Muse that one can’t imagine him as anyone else but a Somali pirate. Some of Muse’s cohorts may carry more muscular frames, but with his gangly physique and wide eyed gaze, Abdi commands every shot with frightening authority. The film takes some lengths at being even handed in its approach towards Abdi and shifting his allegiances back and forth as the stakes are raised. This gray area that it finds is interesting, suggesting that Muse is neither Phillips’ enemy nor his ally. Rather, he is nothing more than a man cornered into making desperate choices. Its as honest a portrayal as one can expect, even if the film takes a couple off key notes with suggestions of how third world countries are deprived of resources by American industries. That statement may have some truth to it, but thankfully Captain Phillips keeps its social critique to a minimum since the approach is more straightforward than investigative.

Narratively, the film could have used a few cuts here and there, particularly with the role of Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife, which shoehorns in a family tie in for Phillips and ends up feeling extraneous. As a moment by moment recreation of events, however, Captain Phillips is deservedly riveting. The fidgety camera and restless editing have become hallmarks for Greengrass’ style and their vibrant use here continues to pay dividends. Be it the incredible takeover of the freighter by the pirates, or the US Navy’s intervention in the film’s pulsating third act, he continues to prove himself as a steady hand in portraying chaos. Greengrass’ style has been emulated endlessly over the past decade to create a sense of intensity, but when employed by others, it often rings false. This is because a key ingredient is consistently present in Greengrass’ films and lacking in others: geography. So many other directors revel in filming handheld action that they get lost within it, unable to maintain a sense of spatial and temporal grounding. This is never the case with Greengrass, who always ensures the audience that the relationship between all key elements inside and out of the frame is never compromised by the filmmaking. This is why his films are able to convey chaos without ever feeling technically uneven. From its strengths of craft and the performances of both Hanks and Abdi, Captain Phillips showcases Greengrass at his most robust and resonant, a calm eye in the center of a storm, focusing our attention exactly where it must be paid.

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~ by romancinema on October 12, 2013.

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