Director Paul Greengrass is no stranger to gritty, real-life thrillers. With films such as Bloody Sunday and the brilliant United 93, he has
shown an incredible talent for drawing viewers in with his handheld camera work and stark realism. Even his two Bourne films benefitted
immensely from his raw, documentarian style.
With Captain Phillips, Greengrass once again showcases his formidable sense of visual chaos and breathless pacing and it may be his best
Based on the real-life pirate hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009, Captain Phillips is a masterful thriller that elevates itself to greatness
not just because of its relentless tension, but because of its exceptional performances and intelligent characterizations.
The film begins with Tom Hanks’ Richard Phillips taking a job captaining a container ship around the horn of Africa.
As Phillips and his wife drive to the airport, he voices concerns for his children. The world is changed and the competition for jobs is
fierce. He fears for their futures and how difficult it will be for them.
It’s the kind of fly-on-wall discussion that draws us into the film while developing its characters.
It’s also an outstanding setup for the film’s underlying theme of desperation and what it compels men to do.
We soon cut to Somalia where we are introduced to Muse, a pirate captain whose situation parallels Phillips’ aforementioned concerns.
Living in a tribe fiercely controlled by a faceless warlord, Muse must resort to piracy. We see a dozen men fighting for a place on the crew
just for a chance to get paid.
The metaphors are obviously there for the world Phillips describes, but Greengrass smartly handles these allusions by only asking us to
understand the pirates’ motivations. We never sympathize with them and we are never meant to, but the effort in portraying its villains as
more than faceless terrorists is impressive.
Barkhad Abdi also gives a very good performance as Muse, even if it is overshadowed by Hanks’ incredible effort.
Hanks leads the film with his strong, determined presence, but it’s during the film’s climax and conclusion where he truly elevates to the
level of award consideration through his vulnerability and humanity. Without spoiling too much, the film shuns the Hollywood clichés
associated with this type of film in its authentic portrayal of the aftermath of a traumatic encounter. The final scenes are wrenching, brutal
and utterly brilliant.
Only when the credits roll are we finally able to exhale. The film is gripping all the way through, but Greengrass’ relentless final act when
Phillips is taken hostage aboard a life boat is a masterpiece in claustrophobic, suspenseful direction. The raw cinematography and natural
performances are especially effective here.
That’s not to say the earlier scenes are lacking intensity in any way.
The pirates’ boarding sequence is outstanding, as are Phillips’ attempts to outwit them aboard the cargo ship.
Sound design, cinematography and editing are all outstanding with the only real disappointment being Henry Jackman’s score. Jackman’s
work is as generic as they come and he blatantly plagiarizes Hans Zimmer’s finale from Inception at the conclusion of the film.
Regardless, Captain Phillips is a superb thriller that transcends its genre with masterful direction, intelligent storytelling and a gritty,
poignant performance from Hanks.
This is truly outstanding filmmaking and Captain Phillips earns my highest recommendation.
* * * *
(out of four)
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad
Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali
Music by: Henry Jackman
Cinematography by: Barry Ackroyd
Released: October 11, 2013; 134 Minutes