‘Captain Phillips’ Review
With piracy drama 'Captain Phillips,' Paul Greengrass ('Bloody Sunday,' 'United 93') has defended his ground as the go-to man for tragic, reality-based pressure-cooker films. The dude really knows how to get your palms sweaty, even when you kinda-sorta know how things are going to end up. Note to self: don't take your cargo ship through the Somali Basin if you don't have to.
Greengrass is also the director of the best two 'Bourne' movies ('Supremacy' and 'Ultimatum') and just as Matt Damon glided through those films as the steely, mixed-martial killing machine, Tom Hanks' center-seat performance here is a master class in keeping it cool.
Richard Philips is the person we all want to be - levelheaded, unflappable and (and this is key) a nice guy. When one of the four gun-waving Somali pirates needs a lesson in how to power-up a lifeboat, he's there to give it. Hell, he's there to wash the bloody soles of their feet, which may sound like a wretchedly blunt Christ metaphor, but considering the high tension and rapid pace of the film, the moment is totally earned.
Indeed, 'Captain Phillips' moves at full throttle for the bulk of its running time. After that first shot across the bow it doesn't let up. There's only the briefest of intros to show you how Phillips is a family man, a hard-working man and a man not all that impressed with unions and their coffee breaks. To the film's great credit, there's also some background given to the Somali pirates - desperate men (and boys) begging for "work" aboard skiffs, taking great risks to hijack container ships on behalf of their belligerent warlord bosses. They are young, they are poor, they are hopped up on Khat - a substance that looks like cilantro but undoubtedly has a different effect. Most of them would likely prefer to be doing anything else than taking an American hostage.
The leader of the group (Barkhad Abdi) and Hanks quickly establish that "had we met elsewhere, we might have been friends" bond. Another of the four, however, is the loose cannon and has the exaggerated crazy eyes to prove it. I suppose you have to flatten some of reality's contours to make a movie work (the 'Captain Phillips' script strays a bit from actual events), but besides this over-the-top performance, that doesn't lessen the quality of the movie too much. This is well-shot action and visceral suspense, building to a conclusion that snaps with perfection.
I could tell you about "the end of 'Captain Phillips'" but even knowing what happens would not explain what is so effective about it. Greengrass' vice-grip editing builds the standoff between the pirates and the US Navy to white-knuckle levels and holds it there for dangerous lengths of time. (Lots of camera rocking; avoid the front rows if you can.) Tom Hanks is no slouch, but his performance in the film's third act might be a career best. He goes well beyond "making choices" to bringing about physical change to his body. It's a very rare thing to see done so well in a mainstream movie.
There's a little stretch in the middle where 'Captain Phillips' changes gears. It blows out from an insular drama aboard a ship to a wider, more global story. At first, I thought it was a mistake. After recalibrating my sea legs, I found the second half just as engaging as the first. That's a testament to the quality of the writing, the sharp shooting style and the remarkable performances all around.
'Captain Phillips' opens in theaters on October 11.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.
[Note: recently, a Danish film called 'A Hijacking' hit the festivals and got a micro release in the US. It hits DVD soon. It is a fascinating thing to contrast with 'Captain Phillips.' It is basically the same story, but told in the exact opposite way - a slow, cerebral film that almost sadistically hinges on anticlimax. It might be fun to rent it to watch soon after this one.]