Captain Phillips (2013)
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray, Richard Phillips
Starring: Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Catherine Keener, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warhofsky, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Tom Hanks
Captain Phillips (2013)
(12A) Running time: 134 minutes
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Billy Ray, Richard Phillips
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warhofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Catherine Keener
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish
Director Paul Greengrass’ latest beltering blockbuster, Captain Phillips, has won critical acclaim from pretty much everyone who has seen it, and already the film is tipped for Oscar glory (with Hanks in the running for a Best Actor nomination). However, all the praise and box office success has been a little hurt by a recent claim by one of the crew of the USS MV Maersk Alabama (the ship captained by Richard Phillips). A crew member claims the film shows Phillips in a false light, making him out to be a hero when he was anything but. There is also a claim that Phillips disrespected his crew. Greengrass has answered these claims by insisting that he, and his team, did extensive research into the events documented by Phillips in his book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea”. Greengrass has promised that what we see on screen is authentic and respectful to the story, and he has interviewed all of the crew of the USS Maersk Alabama (except one) and also spoke with the US military response team, and all others involved in the events, so what we see in Captain Phillips is pretty much as it happened, and it is tense stuff.
Captain Phillips is not a hands in the air, America is best type action movie, this is a serious drama about frightening circumstances, which happen to everyday, normal people doing what they believe is best for them. Phillips does what he can to protect his crew, while the Somali pirates who attack his ship do what they can to earn a living. Culture divides are emphasised here in the first ten minutes, and emphasised to just the right amount as to not appear to be taking sides. Greengrass wants to show us this amazing story of bravery, but he also needed a small back story to help the viewer understand why.
Phillips is introduced as the caring husband and loving Father, driving with his wife to the airport and discussing their kids, and how the world is changing, fast. It is heartwarming stuff, and Hanks, God bless him, you just wanna hug. He catches his flight, arrives at the Docs and boards his ship, which is taking supplies to Africa through the pirate infested Somali waters. Phillips knows the dangers, and demands everything on the ship is locked up tight. On the other end of the spectrum we suddenly land in a Somali village, War Lord’s arrive demanding the poverty stricken locals head out to sea and make money. A Mothership is set up in the waters, while we follow two small boats looking for a ship to rob. One boat is lead by Muse, played with stunning ability by newcomer Abdi. His performance is chilling, controlled and immensely believable, and this characterisation is so well executed, he very nearly finds sympathy with the audience. A strange thing to say, but when he explains later on why piracy is all he knows, and that America has the choices he will never have, you almost feel sorry for him. He is at a total loss to know what to do other than try and make money, money which he doesn’t see much of.”I made $6 million last year” he tells Phillips, “so why are you here?” is Phillips’ response, prompting silence. Phillips and Muse are two very different people, thrown into a situation neither wants to back down from, and neither can actually admit defeat.
Greengrass wastes no time getting to the tension, and within the first quarter, already we have seen Phillips read up on Somali pirates, order a security drill onboard his ship (teaching us, the viewer, exactly what we would have to do in such a situation), and Muse has already mounted an attack. Phillips is quick thinking, calm and collected (expertly played by Hanks) while most of his crew begin to panic. Muse won’t be beaten, and eventually the pirates board the USS Maersk Alabama during a thrilling scene, masterfully pulled off by Greengrass at his very best. The usual shaky-cam we have come to expect from Greengrass, with the sudden close-ups and chaotic camera whizzing, add to the spectacle. No one in the world can pull off the shaky-cam quite like Greengrass, and even the haters will find it hard not to get sucked in by the director’s stunning visual assault on the senses. The scene is incredibly tense, with all the actors doing a wonderful job showing both fear and determination, and the films score brilliantly builds to a louder, pumping sound which forces you to the edge of your seat.
However, Captain Phillips, at its heart, is the story of just two men: Phillips and Muse. Once the story shifts from the ship to a tiny lifeboat, it is all about both characters trying to outwit each other, and while all around them is chaos (Muse’s crew panicking and making mistakes, the US Navy on hand and menacing), both Phillips and Muse continue their interaction. In fact, at times, it almost seems like the pair have a mutual respect for each other, as one looks at the other with confused eyes, at a loss as to how they ended up here, and why on earth they want to continue down this path. Phillips’ stubbornness to not give in, and Muse’s dangerous realisation that he has “come too far to turn back” The tension inside the lifeboat is almost unbearable at times, and at its worst, almost unwatchable.
Greengrass should be applauded for delivering a stunning portrayal of a situation escalating beyond the control of its key players. His expert filming style, incredible ability to build tension, and a frantic, chaotic score make Captain Phillips some serious nail biting stuff. Add to this Hanks on top form, and delivering one of the best performances of his career, and a newcomer (Abdi) who very nearly steals the show, plus a riveting story of courage and madness, and Captain Phillips is fully deserved of the praise it has been receiving. At over two hours long, it never actually feels that long for the action starts quick and rarely stops, and the tension just builds and builds and builds. Greengrass has done his homework, and each and every moment is delivered with care and precision, making Captain Phillips one of the most thrilling films of the year. See it, endure it, be part of it, and also be ready for a final moment guaranteed to make grown men cry. Powerful, brilliant stuff made by a filmmaker and megastar, both at the very top of their game.