Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) finds himself in a tight spot
Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) finds himself in a tight spot

Captain Phillips tackles the same subject matter as Tobias Lindholm’s feature A Hijacking did earlier this year, namely what occurs at sea when Somali pirates commandeer a vessel and its crew for ransom. The differences between the two films are revealing about the different sensibilities of cinema on either side of the Atlantic. Lindholm’s film captured the business-like monotony of such a transaction as well as the psychologically gruelling effects of extended duress. It was set over a period of months. Paul Greengrass’ film is set over just a few hours, and is much more enthusiastically concerned with trying to capture a scenario in which every second could mean life or death.

Both films are exhausting, but for different reasons. A Hijacking – which I would recommend as a counterpoint to anyone who enjoys this film – tires the audience by evoking just how arduous a hostage situation must be when it is sustained over such an extended period of time. What it must be like to live with a gun to your head for half a year. Captain Phillips’ fatigue is caused by having one moment teased out arguably to beyond breaking point as Greengrass painfully documents a salvage mission in near real-time at the film’s close.

…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. And let’s also focus on this movie, which has garnered a lot of praise, most of which is entirely justified. Tom Hanks plays the titular Phillips (all due respect to the guy, but what a terrible name for a movie. Just sayin’). He’s a family man whose job just happens to take him all over the globe as a captain for commercial vessels. On this particular job he’s to command a ship from Oman to Kenya through Somali waters. Well aware of the dangers, Phillips is a prudent and suspicious man, more concerned with the safety of his crew than with making friends.

The other captain in this movie is a young Somali man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), leader of his small band of pirates, but really just an employee entrusted with getting a dirty job done right. His crack team are hardly that; handpicked on the beach right before casting off, Muse will have to deal with both descent and incompetence in the ranks as he takes on Phillips on the high seas.

Muse’s approach to Phillips’ ship – and Phillips’ nervy, yet controlled reaction to the danger – is constructed and presented with textbook grade-A Hollywood suspense. It is here, as an entertainment piece, that Captain Phillips satisfies the most, the details and the dangers are presented to the audience all too well. It really is a masterclass in thrill-building, intelligent and proficient.

It helps no end that nobody aboard Phillips’ ship wants to play John McClane, least of all Phillips. These men are presented as fearful, brave, loyal and determined, but above all human. There are no larger than life heroes here. 

Despite their best efforts, Muse and his men take the ship (you’ve probably all seen the “I’m the captain now” bit from the promo materials). In this second act, Phillips and his crew tenaciously set about undermining the pirates’ intentions through deception and Home Alone style booby traps. For a while, Captain Phillips feels like a home invasion movie that’s been bizarrely relocated. This too works well, feeling true to life yet also satisfying the demands of an American thriller. Greengrass’ movie is inventive and pacy and performances across the board are pitch-perfect.

Potential spoiler time. Things take a surprising turn (if you’re not privy to what happened – the screenplay is based on the real Phillips’ own book) when Muse’s plan collapses and he is forced to abandon ship in a lifeboat, but manages to take Phillips with him as a hostage. This swings Greengrass’ movie into another phase altogether, an extended third act in which Muse tries desperately to regain control of a bad situation, Phillips stares death in the face and as audience members we’re put through a whole new wringer.

Relocating the film’s action from the vast maze of the ship to the tight confines of the lifeboat is executed well but still can’t help feeling jarring. After the brisk pacing of events up to this point, it is easy to expect a resolution just as quickly, but it is here that Greengrass’ film buckles down. I can’t say I was timing the movie, but I’d hazard a guess that this third act takes up over half of the film’s entire running time. A running time which is simply too long. The navy get involved and suddenly we’re in a different movie altogether. This reference point may largely fall on deaf ears, but be prepared for the most drawn out 999 reconstruction you’ve ever seen.

Sustaining such a heightened dramatic scenario for so long takes its toll, and it’s almost inevitable that things descend into hysterics and melodrama from time to time during this marathon finale. Greengrass does his best to contain it, treating the navy’s response like a tactical procedural (a similar sensibility to Bigelow’s treatment of the final mission of Zero Dark Thirty), but events are so agonisingly protracted in order to eke out suspense that it ultimately feels like too much.

Fortunately, Hanks saves the film in a final scene which ranks with his very best work. He’s always been an extremely watchable presence, a leading man too often cynically dismissed, and here he gives his best performance in over a decade. It almost single-handedly lifts opinion of the film as a whole. If you consider the journey he goes on from the film’s beginning to end, it may even be the most impressive turn of his career. And not enough has been said about his counterpart Abdi. Muse isn’t just an all-purpose bad guy, and for the most part neither are his comrades. Thankfully this film has the decency to paint them as separate, conflicted characters and not just generic villains.

Captain Phillips is a good movie. And if you’re looking for a tense and dramatic Hollywood reconstruction of a tactical mission, the aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty is the only thing that beats it this year. I can’t help but view this film in comparison to A Hijacking though. It’s interesting how too different perspectives on truth can feel so different. Greengrass can’t help but sensationalise the dramatic events aboard that lifeboat. There’s no denying his rigorous control over every aspect of this production, including his ability to draw the audience in. It’s just a bit of a shame that Captain Phillips only fleetingly asks us to think about the broader concerns here, both global and for the individual. Still, it’s a great advert for the Navy SEALS.

Score:  3.5

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