Review: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

The second film in as many weeks to leave you gasping for air, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS features Tom Hanks’s best performance in a decade, and definitively makes Paul Greengrass the master of the docudrama.

The navy is not gonna let you win — they would rather sink this boat, than let you win.

–Phillips

When it comes to making films based on harrowing real-life events, Hollywood should just cede the genre to Paul Greengrass. The British director has already proved his worth on American soil with United 93 and the Bourne films, and his latest is his best yet: an unsettling, deeply felt, high seas thriller with all of his “you-are-there” panache.

The screenplay by Billy Ray doesn’t pull any punches, not taking the route of making the Somali pirates too sympathetic; we come to understand their circumstances, and despair over the choices they feel they have to make, but everything remains perfectly in balance. This is easier to do when you have America’s Equilibrium, Tom Hanks, in the title role. His clear-eyed decency is our portal into this horrific situation, and gives the audience something to hold onto.

Fortunately for the film, it gets its worst scene out of the way early: on the way to the airport, Rich Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) awkwardly reflect on how “the world is changing,” and on the money-driven system that leads to boats taking dangerous routes like the one Phillips is about to begin around the horn of Africa. The thematic groundwork is clumsily laid, but when a band of four pirates boards the Alabama — the first successful hijacking of a US ship in over a hundred years — their leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) tells Phillips “it’s just business,” and the Captain uses every ounce of his guile to manipulate the situation, ultimately saving his crew but getting himself taken hostage.

It’s the second half of Captain Phillips, when the camera is confined to the small lifeboat containing Phillips (or “Irish,” as he is renamed) and the pirates, that the film really shines. Each party becomes more and more desperate as the U.S. Navy (and eventually the SEALS) get involved, and though we all know how the story eventually ends, it doesn’t make that ending any less thrilling…or difficult. Hanks, as the only guy on the boat who knows what’s about to happen, has a pair of scenes that hit with a force he hasn’t exhibited in a long, long time. Since his unstoppable run in the 1990s (everything from Philadelphia up to Cast Away), he’s taken on less-challenging roles that allow him to coast through on his inherent likability, but he taps into something here that’s absolutely extraordinary and reminds us how good he can be.

Greengrass takes the opposite approach of the stylistically-similar Zero Dark Thirty, which populated its margins with a dozen recognizable faces; Phillips instead is cast almost entirely with no-names and non-actors. Fortunately, all of them hold their own, even against Hanks — Abdi, as Muse, is a walking clenched fist, paranoid and quick-thinking. The rest of Muse’s team (the hothead, the young one, the mechanic) feel refreshingly like real people, and not stock types. Also impressive is Michael Chernus as Phillips’s first mate Shane, who has an easy naturalism and command of the ship’s jargon.  But through it all, it’s Hanks who is the heart and soul of the film. Greengrass keeps it almost entirely in his point-of-view, save a few scenes with the Navy, and that clear focus adds to the tension and keeps us deeply invested.

Lest you think the film borders on hagiography, Phillips himself isn’t let off the hook either. He receives a warning early on about pirate attacks in the area, and instead of changing course, which would cost the company money (and diminish his hire-ability in a tough industry), he simply doubles down on security drills, which eventually prove to be for naught. His heroism (as depicted in the film) is first keeping his crew safe, and then in his pure survival out on the sea. Here Hanks’s Everyman appeal comes most in handy, but the script gives you license to point out his mistakes. It’s already taken hits for its accuracy — being true to Phillips’s memoir and true to the actual events aren’t necessarily the same. However, regardless of how much is right or fair, the film stands on its own just fine.

As typical of a Greengrass film, the camerawork and editing are fantastic; the director utilizes heavy grain in the darker scenes, and allows the tension to build steadily throughout the back half of the film until it’s almost unbearable.  It’s also a film that asks challenging questions, and isn’t afraid to leave them unanswered: if the pirates are acting less out of greed than desperation — “I got bosses,” Muse says — what is our responsibility to them in a global context? Captain Phillips is a “small” story told on a huge canvas — exceedingly well-crafted, and with Hanks as the anchor, a near masterpiece.

Grade: A-

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