Movie Review – Captain Phillips
Principal Cast : Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vasquez, Max Martini.
Synopsis: On a freight voyage down the Somali coast, a large container ship is attacked by pirates, and the crew taken hostage.
This won’t float your boat.
It’s hardly a new concept, piracy on the high seas. Ever since people figured that they could transport large quantities of valuable cargo via ship to all corners of the globe, other people have tried to relieve those boats of that cargo, usually via violent and deadly methods. The days of Blackbeard and Captain Jack Sparrow are long gone, pillaging the high seas around the Caribbean, replaced today by African pirates out of Somalia, Ethiopia and other poor coastal African nations. Driven by the lure of money, Somali pirates have become the new oceanic danger, largely for freight vessels, and are considered the modern scourge of seagoing craft. Captain Phillips, directed by Bourne Supremacy and United 93 helmer Paul Greengrass, dramatizes the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a vessel traversing the Somali coast and captained by Richard Phillips. Greengrass, a director unafraid to tackle the hard topics – his United 93 was a powerful testament to the heroes of 9/11 – once again presents a real-world, grim-n-gritty look at a modern problem, and delivers a tense, gripping and Oscar-worthy film that will have you holding your breath until the very last.
Synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) takes command of the MV Maersk Alabama from Port of Salalah in Oman, with orders to sail through the Gulf of Aden to Mombasa. Wary of pirate activity off the coast of Somalia, he orders security precautions on the vessel. During one training exercise, Phillips is aware they might be hijacked by Somali pirates in two skiffs but he succeeds in outrunning the pirates. Four pirates return the next day led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) in a faster skiff, carrying a ladder they had hastily welded. Despite Phillips’ and his crew’s best efforts, the pirates are able to board and take control of the Maersk Alabama, capturing the captain while most of his crew hides in the ship’s engine room. Muse, under orders from a local faction leader, hopes to ransom the ship and crew in exchange for insurance money from the shipping company.
The premise is ridiculously simple. A small group of armed Somali pirates take control of a container ship and demand a ransom from the company that owns it. From there, Captain Phillips ramps up into tense, exciting terror, as the crew of the vessel are stripped of power and the ability to fight back, as Muse and his men search the ship and make their demands. Under Siege, this isn’t (no Erika Eleniak boobs here, chaps) and there’s no Steven Segal to save the day. Tom Hanks, cast as the eponymous Richard Phillips, is given yet another opportunity to showcase his astonishing ability to deliver Oscar-worthy performances with one of his best turns on screen since Saving Private Ryan (a film he should have been nominated for, at least). Phillips is your average, blue-collar ship captain, leaving his wife at home (Catherine Keener, in a small role) to take on the dangerous journey down the African coast, and his crew are men with their own agendas – many of them are angry that the ships company doesn’t provide them with either weapons for defence, or armed guards aboard in order to repel pirates – and in amongst this crossfire of conflicting demands, he must try to save not only his crew, but also himself, from possible death.
Hanks, as Phillips, is superb. The film hangs on his performance, and the man delivers (again). What’s most surprising about Captain Phillips is the performance of Barkhad Abdi, as Muse, the leader of the pirates. In his debut, Abdi is simply brilliant. In fact, he goes toe-to-toe with Hanks in the acting stakes, and almost comes out in front. I’ll say it again: Hanks, one of the greatest actors of our generation, is almost acted off the screen by the raw intensity of an African actor making his debut. Abdi has the unbridled charisma of Djimon Hounsou, only without some of the refinement, and I suspect we’ll be seeing great things from him in the future. I sure hope so. Abdi’s role of the pirate leader is one of calculating menace, using fear and the threat of death to get what he wants, and Abdi commits to the part fully. The fact that these pirates were teenagers (although the actors playing them are quite visibly not), from a local coastal fishing village, makes the actions of their act all the more stunning; Abdi, himself hitting 30 here, doesn’t try and play it younger, going for unbridled anger and bloodlust.
Greengrass’s now-accepted hand-held verite style is once more on display, using extreme close-ups, shaky-cam and a pseudo-documentary feel that puts the audience right into the thick of it. Shot aboard an identical commercial vessel to the Maersk, and aboard a replica lifeboat (Phillips and his captors spend the last half of the film inside a cramped escape vessel), Captain Phillips’ legitimacy is never questioned as Greengrass shoots from the hip to deliver the raw tension and fear of piracy and its effect on innocent people. There’s an immediacy to the film that draws you in, making Phillips’ perilous situation more adrenalized, more sharp than what might be achieved traditionally. The film lacks polish, at least from a visual point of view, although the gritty, reality-based style isn’t unexpected. DP Barry Aykroyd, who snagged an Oscar nomination for lensing The Hurt Locker for Katherine Bigelow, eschews the slick, polished look of most Hollywood productions in favor of a flat, gloss-free look here, grounding the film (and the story) in the real, unvarnished world, making it infinitely more effective.
Captain Phillips is a film that just doesn’t quit; just when you think it might be over, there’s another twist to this captive saga, with Phillips himself undergoing some radically harsh treatment at the hands of his captors. Once the Navy arrives to begin their negotiation/rescue mission, the pirates begin to unravel, and the film really amps up. It’s not as easy as just blowing the lifeboat out of the water, because there’s an American citizen on board. How the situation resolves itself is, if it weren’t already real, unbelievable. Greengrass makes the most of every nuance and character interplay, wringing the sweat from both Hanks and the viewer as he ratchets up the tension as the hostage scenario moves into its final phase. The film might have easily ended at about the 90 minute mark, but it dwells further into the 2 hour point and never, not once, feels tiresome or stretched beyond its natural narrative limit. Credit to Greengrass for keeping this thing going as long – and as well – as he does.
Make no mistake: Captain Phillips is a terrific film. Easily one of the best of 2013, it’s a taut, tense and exciting example of how to make a biopic. Go into it without knowing the outcome (although considering it’s a feature film, one might guess that Phillips makes it out alive; although you’ll have to find out for yourself) and you’ll find yourself grabbing hold of the armrests on your couch as Phillips ticks the minutes of survival, hoping against hope that he doesn’t die. Hanks is brilliant, Abdi is superb (is he 2013’s Quvenzhane Wallis?) and the premise (and execution of the plot) is razor sharp. Captain Phillips is unmissable cinema.
8 thoughts on “Movie Review – Captain Phillips”
Unmissable cinema indeed! Some super performances bring out the great drama and tension evident in this based-on-true-events story. It was definitely one of my favourite films of 2013. I was surprised by Hanks' omission in the Best Actor Oscar noms.
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I think a lot of people were surprised by the Academy's snub, Dan, and it makes you wonder what might have been, eh? I knew next-to-nothing about this story before I sat down to watch it, other than it was a true event of some kind, and wound up being utterly amazed at what I saw. Whether the film is entirely truthful or not with regards to those events, well, that's not for me to say, but the film as told was convincingly terrifying.
I agree with you on this one, Rodney. It's one of Hanks' best performances (my #1 is the obvious choice, Forrest Gump) and Barkhad Abdi gives a stunning debut. I certainly hope he isn't this year's Quvenzhane Wallis in a way though, because I haven't heard anything else from her since last year.
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I still think Hanks was robbed for his performance in Cast Away, Mette, but I agree – this is one of the man's best screen portrayals yet. Although, I doubt there's many in his filmography that are what one might consider "poor"….
I was surprised to see Quvenzhane show up in 12 Years A Slave last year, albeit a small role, but she's there nonetheless. Given she's only 10, I'd imagine she's stepped away from the limelight for a bit to concentrate on her education (at least that's what I hope is the case) and mayeb in a few years she'll come back in a big way. It's hard with child stars, finding the right role to do at the best of times, especially harder considering she's got "Oscar Nominee" stamped all over her CV, so if she's chosen to remain relatively small-range at the moment, I can only say that's a good thing for her future prospects. After all, if her adult acting isn't that great, what's she gonna have if she has no education?
Good review Rod. By far my favorite thriller of last year. Also, one of my favorites from last year, even though it's clear that I'm sort of alone in that boat.
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Oh I don't know, I think a lot of people really liked this one! It's easily a top 5 contender for me, along with Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, and Rush.
Couldn't agree more, amazing performances, thrilling story. Definitely a movie not to be missed.
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Thanks man, glad you enjoyed it too!! Bummer about Hanks not snagging an Oscar nom for this one, eh?