Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Captain Phillips

Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray

     Captain Phillips is a taut, gripping thriller of realism. It is a film that brings forth action that is unforced and a moral immediacy to the world we live in. The kinetic action is balanced by an honest portrayal of a "real-life events" thriller, that does not judge either side and allows for a vision of the reasoning behind the actions of the proposed "good" and "bad" guys. The film rarely falters and with a few scenes that might be a little too stretched at times, it brings home an emotional level of authenticity in its final scene that will be sure to grab anyone by the heart. The film contains some of the finest acting in film today, especially by a crew of newcomers. Trust me, the film is intense and expertly made, but, I would not expect anything else from Mr. Paul Greengrass.
     Captain Phillips is based off true events that occurred in 2009 when the cargo ship the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates. It is based off Mr. Phillips book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea." We first see Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) at his picturesque home in Vermont. He is packing for his next venture and he and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) are driving to the airport. The scene speaks of the two parents concerned about the future for their children and the fact the world is an ever-changing place. Greengrass opens with this to incorporate the humanism in Phillips and the state of place where the family is at in their lives. The scene sets up the calm for the film, but we do not go back the family. I like that. It allows for us to focus on Phillips and the events that happened at sea. It also allows for an emotionally difficult and intense scene at the end, as we have travelled through this film with Captain Phillips.
     After this, we are on his container cargo vessel, the Maersk Alabama. He is checking the pirate cages and locks, and right away we know this is going to be a dangerous trip. Going around the horn of Africa, delivering United Nations supplies and foods to African nations in need. Travelling from Oman to Kenya, and going through the piracy laden waters off the coast of Somalia. Danger persists.
     The film really brings about an honesty with its look into the job-like demeanor of a professional everyman in Phillips and then inter-cutting it with a peak into the Somali's. A poor nation, run by devastating warlords. We see them picking out men on the beach to hijack a ship. Piracy is a huge business and these men are doing what they have to do to survive. Even if it means committing massive crimes. It is a world completely opposite from the United States. Men are picked and travel out to sea, with battered ships and guns as there only means to force extraction. They are looking for a payoff and to fulfill the warlords wants and needs. I enjoyed seeing this juxtaposition of Phillips with his wife and then with his crew on the ship, and then the Somali's preparing to hijack a ship. It showed reasons, needs and necessities. It did not hold judgment or persecution. 
     Four men hijack the Maersk and hold the Captain at gunpoint. They state they do not want to hurt anyone, but just want the cargo and money. The crew is hiding and eventually, actions lead to consequences. We get to a point where Captain Phillips is put in a lifeboat and is used as a blackmail tool. The pirates are bringing him to Somali in order to get the money they want and will use him as a bargaining tool. Ok. I will not delve any further into the plot or its outcomes, but Greengrass has built everything up with educated suspense and well-acted scenes. Some of the scenes are drawn out a little too far in my opinion, but it does not lessen the impact and craft of the filmmaker and screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, The Hunger Games). In its 130 minute run time, I never once was bored or uninterested, and Mr. Greengrass' kinetic, cinema verite style of directing gives that documentary realism that fits this film so well. That style is pretty much what you expect from Greengrass, who also directed United 93 and the final two installments of the Matt Damon-led Bourne films. Both of those Bourne films were fantastic.
     Greengrass is in top-form here and knows how to expertly tell a realistic, tense filled story. His direction is spot on and the camera work by his DP Barry Ackroyd does not miss either. Yeah, it is jittery and constantly moving, but it really fits with being on a ship and adds a level of unbridled tension to every scene. Ackroyd, who also shot Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, is brilliant and does not over shot anything. The film is almost a companion piece to Bigelow's other great film, Zero Dark Thirty, with its account of realistic, harrowing events. They both contain brilliant Navy SEALS-led suspense and action as well. The score from Henry Jackman adds to the intensity of each scene, but never overpowers it. Believe me when I say that the final half hour of this film contains some of the finest filmmaking all year. It brings everything home and includes some of Tom Hanks best acting ever.
    The acting is phenomenal throughout this film. Hanks is perfect as the disciplined, American everyman Richard Phillips. He delivers throughout, as usual, but he is so to-the-core throughout, until we get to the final scene where his emotion and pain is so overwhelming. It got me and was as good of acting as Hanks has ever delivered. This should easily garner him awards attention, but the field of actors this year is highly competitive and growing. It is still Hanks that we can easily relate to. His ethics, determination and heart are on full display. Even in a scene where he is dealing with his crew and union based realities, he exemplifies command and efficiency. As much as Hanks is the star and shows how brilliant and talented he is, it is a newcomer that holds his own and almost steals the show from him.
    The main bad guy, Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), is amazing as the captain of the four Somali pirates. His gaunt frame, misaligned teeth and skinny disposition is presented and acted with detailed fear and anger. The man is sent to perform a task and will not relent, even when the lifeboat is surrounded by the US Navy, carrying Navy SEALS. He states "I cannot give up." Abdi delivers a star turning performance and it is astonishing that this is the first film he has ever done. Going toe-to-toe with a veteran thespian like Hanks even adds to his wonderful, grounded performance. He gives Muse a balanced, honest portrayal. These are bad guys, but we see where they are coming from and how they live. A humanistic side to another part of the world and life that is full struggle and poverty. I must give attention to the other three Somali's, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali, who give more traditional bad guy performances, but are equally effective. Also, real-life Navy corpsman Danielle Albert, who in the final scene with Hanks, delivers a powerful supporting turn. Amazing stuff.
     Greengrass and Ray do distinguish the differences between the "good guy" Americans and the "bad guy" Somali pirates, but do it in a way that shows the moral dilemma facing these men and the world. You obviously realize that piracy and theft is bad and that they have no justification to hurt Captain Phillips and his crew, but we see where they are coming from. They live in a world of intense poverty and reside in a society that is void of any comfort features. I enjoyed the fact that the filmmakers do not place "God-like" judgment on the characters and present the actions and reasons of what is going on. The film, as I said before, has some languished scenes, mainly once the hijack has occurred until they go off into the lifeboat, but it is told and filmed with such intensity and suspense that exemplifies the definition of a well-made and expertly constructed thriller. That moral immediacy that is delivered throughout, spot on directing from Greengrass and the excellent acting, especially from Hanks and Abdi, are what makes Captain Phillips a must-see.

Photo credits by IMDB.

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