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Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips (2013)

Directed by: Paul Greengrass

Premise: Based on a true story, Somali pirates hijack an American crewed cargo ship. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew try to outwit their captors as the hijacking escalates into an international incident.

What Works: Captain Phillips is another impressive accomplishment by director Paul Greengrass, the filmmaker behind United 93, Green Zone, and The Bourne Ultimatum. Greengrass has shown an ability to dramatically recreate the major news events of our day, presenting familiar stories in a way that is as fresh and as gripping as a piece of fiction and imbuing these events with the humanity that only a dramatic rendition can accomplish. Like Greengrass’ other works, Captain Phillips is shot in a cinema verite style, frequently looking like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. This approach gives the movie a lot of credibility as it does not overstate the drama but lets the action and the circumstances play out realistically. The scenario of Captain Phillips could quite easily be turned into an absent minded action movie in the vein of Under Siege but the stylistic choices refute the typical action-adventure mentality. The filmmakers remind viewers that this is a story of real people on real boat in real circumstances and the choices these characters make have real consequences. With that grip on reality, the filmmakers tell a relatively straightforward story and inject it with a lot of pathos appeal. Tom Hanks’ performance as Phillips is very impressive. Given the verite style of the picture, casting a movie star like Hanks in the title role ought to be a disruptive mistake but he is entirely convincing and in the finale of this picture Hanks pushes himself as an actor in ways not seen at least since 2004’s The Terminal if not all the way back to 1993’s Philadelphia. The other notable performance of Captain Phillips is Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the lead Somali pirate. Abdi is great in this role. Like Hanks’ portrayal of Phillips, Abdi brings a human scale to Muse, as do the other actors playing the pirates, and the way this film deals with these characters is one of its most impressive qualities. As of late (but predating the 9/11 attack), people of dark complexion, especially from the Middle East and Africa, have been the bad guys of choice in Hollywood. In many respects that convention makes sense given current events but when many films and television shows seize on that trend an entire group of people are often reduced to caricatures and topics like politics and economics are glossed over or ignored altogether. The filmmakers of Captain Phillips make an effort to understand the pirates and why they are doing this, although without condoning their actions. What Captain Phillips dramatizes, ultimately, is a conflict in which the violence is tragic and wasteful and the film is a thoughtful rebuff to vicious shoot-‘em-ups like Black Hawk Down.

What Doesn’t: Paul Greengrass’ films are sometimes challenging for the audience because he does not spell out obvious social messages. United 93 recreated the events of September 11, 2001 and put the audience back in the fear and trauma of the moment but without using the Hollywood blockbuster style that dictates to an audience how they should feel about what they have witnessed. The same is true in Captain Phillips and so viewers may leave the theater wondering what it is they saw. That provocation is not a flaw of this film; in many respects it is to the filmmakers’ credit. But it is easy to imagine that viewers who are conditioned to being spoon-fed their emotional and intellectual reactions will be puzzled by this film.

Bottom Line: Captain Phillips is another strong effort by Paul Greengrass, a director who has emerged as one of the most interesting and important filmmakers working today. Like Greengrass’ other work, this film manages to tell a gripping story that is as entertaining as it is intelligent.

Episode: #462 (October 27, 2013)