Saturday, October 12, 2013


"Captain Phillips" is very much a Paul Greengrass movie, and it's very much a Tom Hanks movie. This  makes it a certified awards movie. But is it a great movie? Not so fast.

It's hard to imagine anyone else at the helm of this film, the true life story of Somali pirates hijacking an American cargo ship in 2009, the first act of its kind in two hundred years. It is real world recreation and documentation of a tragic event as was Greengrass' "United 93" in 2006. It also bears resemblance to Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," a moment in American history that defined a world in flux and one person's turmoil at the center of it.

As Captain Richard Phillips prepares to embark on the MV Maersk Alabama to travel around the potentially dangerous horn of Africa, he talks with his wife (Catherine Keener) about a changing world, a landscape his son has to grow up in. Cut to a team of Somalians whose own world is in economic ruin as they set off to plunder millions from the cargo ship. Instead of plumbing any real world complexities, Greengrass sticks to the facts taking a very businesslike approach. It's a perfectly calculated dramatization of a real life incident with clear depiction of the "what" without the intrigue of the "why." Even with all that shaky cam to get a rise out of viewers, it still strangely feels once-removed.

Making preparations on the ship, Captain Phillips is calm and regimented, careful and professional. And when an ominous, fast-approaching blip appears on his ship's radar, he keeps his cool and gently affirms to his crew they might be entering a troubling situation. And when any bemoaning arises, he knows exactly when to firm up. Watching Tom Hanks melt into the role is absorbing in the film's early stages and affirms his movie-star presence, anchoring the proceedings. When the Somali pirates make their way aboard the ship, led by the determined Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Phillips maintains his levelheadedness, reasoning and negotiating with the attackers while keeping as much understanding as he can muster.

It's when Phillips gets taken hostage into the ship's lifeboat that the film pigeon-holes itself into a pressure cooker of tension and impending violence. The camera holed up inside this cramped space creates intense claustrophobia and startling immediacy. Refusing to surrender when the Navy descends on him and his team, Barkhad Abdi gives a commanding first-time performance as Muse. Waiting for the inevitable outcome, however, goes on for nearly too long, and it becomes apparent there simply isn't enough content to justify the 134-minute running time.

It all comes back to Tom Hanks whose performance should be recognized by the academy. The last ten minutes of "Captain Phillips" is what people will leave talking about, a moment of wrenching emotional clarity. Phillips, the ordinary man who came out the other end of a tragic event as a hero is still completely human and can finally break down, evacuating all of his bottled up fear and vulnerability. It feels more than earned; it's just too bad we had to wait so long to receive such greatness.

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