Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

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Directed by – Paul Greengrass
Written by – Billy Ray
Based on a true story
Starring – Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Catherine Keener, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, Chris Mulkey & Yul Vazquez

Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) has always been an astute director when it comes to thrillers that pack an emotional punch and Captain Phillips – a film which is based on a horrifying true story – shows that the man has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. Praised across the board as one of the most intense films of the year, Captain Phillips is a masterclass in how to step back and simply allow the natural intensity of a story to unfold on the screen. For all of its problems (of which there are most definitely a few), this is a film that throws the audience into the emotional blender and churns them around for over two hours, yet one that is never manipulative, contrived or, worst of all, boring.

I think the film’s greatest success is that it maintains a consistent level of tension all the way through, even though we know how the story ends. The first act, in which we are introduced to Phillips (played by the ever-wonderful Tom Hanks; The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan), lays the foundations for the terror that is to come, while also introducing us to the four Somalian pirates with whom we and Phillips will be forced to spend much of the film. The middle act brings the tension to a head as the pirates invade the ship and is by far the most action-heavy section of the film, while the final act introduces an element of claustrophobia and uncertainty that is hugely engrossing, if not a little terrifying. Anyone who knows the details of what happened aboard the Maersk Alabama – as I did – won’t be too surprised by the way the film pans out, yet prior knowledge of the events doesn’t make it any less engaging, which is a sign of a great film.

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Don’t be fooled though, for Captain Phillips isn’t just about a hijacking. Greengrass’ film juggles the personal tale of Phillips’ courage and resilience with the tale of Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi in his first feature performance), the leader of the pirates who undergoes something of a journey of his own. Amidst all the terror and the violence, Greengrass’ biggest focus is on the comparison between these two men and the battle of wits in which they both become engaged. For much of the film we are trapped in a small, fraught space with Phillips and Muse, and during this time Greengrass grants us a stark insight into what it is that motivates both of them. The film introduces the idea that Muse has a lot of respect for Phillips, and perhaps even vice versa, which serves to make the action and the drama all the more thrilling. Though Muse’s crimes are never excused he is painted as a complex villain, which is essential for a piece of thriller cinema. Ignore the fact that it is based on a true story and what we’re left with is a film rich in characters with whom we are able to relate.

The film also deserves credit for its natural transitions between each set-piece. Captain Phillips is quite erratic at times, though that helps to heighten the audience’s lack of security and certainty about what will happen next. The three major set-pieces – the siege of the boat, the subsequent escape and the final showdown (which is reminiscent of the final siege in Zero Dark Thirty) – are all expertly handled, yet better still the film is able to slow down and narrow in on a quiet moment without ever feeling like it’s suddenly run out of steam. Greengrass is able to handle the thrills and the drama with equal gusto, resulting in a film that more than justifies its running time. I’m not entirely convinced that we needed the family drama – which is only touched upon briefly at the beginning, yet plays such a crucial part in the final act – but other than that, each of the film’s beats is essential to the overall story.

Of course, the main point of praise must be the performances of Hanks and Abdi, both of which are phenomenal. A lot of people have perhaps overpraised Hanks but that’s probably because Captain Phillips is the first great film he’s made in years, but nevertheless his performances is still pretty astonishing, especially towards the end. The true star for me however is Barkhad Abdi who manages to almost make the audience feel some sympathy for what his character is doing. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Abdi’s turn as Muse is one of the best debut performances I’ve ever seen, and I have a feeling this film will help catapult him to stardom. He and Hanks play off each other and develop a camaraderie that none of the other stars achieve (even though all of the cast are great in the respective roles), and it helps grant an even deeper layer of suspense and intrigue to their conflict.

If I were to make one criticism of Captain Phillips it’d be that the film’s pro-Americanism is a little bit grating. For a film based so heavily on real life events, I was hoping for a little bit more neutrality. The film doesn’t shove a message down your throat (take note Elysium) but it does descend a bit too much into patriotism now and then, and for no real reason. We know who the good guys are so we don’t need to glorify them. Nevertheless, despite that minor gripe Captain Phillips is still a great film. The action is intense, the drama is thrilling and the film oozes a palpable atmosphere of desperation from start to finish. Greengrass proves once more that he’s great at directing both action and drama, and Hanks reminds us that he’s still a damn fine actor and, to be frank, it’s probably worth seeing for that alone…