Captain Phillips is a strong, well made, “you are there” thriller from master director Paul Greengrass and starring two-time Academy award winner Tom Hanks. And it’s really good, but it’s weird that nowadays any movie that features adult characters and situations automatically gets categorized as an Oscar picture. Considering Hollywood is now a business now dominated by superhero films and their ilk, perhaps being an awards contender has become a dog whistle for grownups. That said, this is a gripping true-life thriller for grown ups.
- Director: Paul Greengrass
- Screenwriter: Billy Ray
- Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Chris Mulkey
- Cinematography by: Barry Ackroyd
- Original Music by: Henry Jackman
Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) is the commander of the Maersk Alexandra, which is a merchant vessel that swings by Somali. As his entire crew know, that area is filled with pirates who have very little and are usually high on Khat. On their routine mission, Phillips’s ship is pursued and eventually boarded by Somali terrorists/kids led by Muse (Abdi). It’s four against a ship, but the Somalis have automatic weapons and think they’ve just secured millions of dollars. Phillips does what he can to isolate and pacify them.
- Tension: As anyone who was paying attention in April of 2009 will know, the results of this act of piracy are well known and easily spoiled, which means the pressure is on the filmmakers and the cast to make the self-evident engaging. But unlike Zero Dark Thirty, which built its narrative on the accrual of evidence, this gets into the minute details and the chess board of a reasonably competent and smart man at the center of a hostage situation who’s dealing with characters that are both horrible but empathetic in their way. Though the film runs into a little lag toward the end when characters are stuck in a no-win situation, even that works well enough. The film takes a couple minutes to establish the characters, but then it’s about putting the audience in the middle of a terrible situation, and Greengrass is a master at doing that and Hanks is the perfect avatar.
- The Ending: Tom Hanks gives a solid performance over the course of the film, but his last moments on screen are why he’s considered an Oscar nominee, and is one of the most memorable scenes of this or any year. It’s an amazing moment and elevates the movie from being just pretty good to maybe close to great.
- Greengrass: The director has been using his faux-Cinéma vérité style for over a decade, and though others have done it well, Greengrass and his supposedly shakey-cam are much more precise than the other filmmakers who often use chaos to cover their tracks. He does it with purpose and he does it better than anyone else. And there is a great expertise here. Any limitations to the film seem to have to do with his desire to keep the story as realistic as possible.
The So So:
- Minor Complaints: There’s nothing wrong with this movie, it’s smart, well put together, doesn’t waste much time, and tells an interesting story, but there’s also not much under the surface either. Greengrass creates compelling characters, and presents the Somali pirates with as much empathy as possible, but this isn’t a film about how messed up their country is, nor does it have much to say about the American military’s involvement or much of anything. It’s just a well put together thriller. On that level it succeeds. But Greengrass’s documentary approach means that it’s about putting in the shoes, and that achieves great power and point in some of his earlier works, while here it works as an approach and it’s a strong one, but it doesn’t have the weight of his earlier efforts. This is very good, but in the scheme of things doesn’t have much besides the final sequence of the movie to push it into greatness.
Like Gravity before it, Captain Phillips is a well executed movie that delivers everything you’d want from a thriller, though without the former’s audacity. But that’s not a knock, this is well worth seeing.
Captain Phillips hits theaters October 11.