Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Action,Drama,Thrillers Movie Review of ‘Captain Phillips’ (2013)

Movie Review of ‘Captain Phillips’ (2013)

Director Paul Greengrass’ first motion picture in a number of years, 2013’s Captain Phillips finds the seasoned filmmaker back in familiar territory, utilising his intense documentary-style approach to tell the true story of the first pirate takeover of an American vessel since the 19th Century. It’s a riveting, incredibly intense picture, but it also feels like Greengrass is playing it too safe; it’s closer to Green Zone than United 93, eschewing the sophistication and emotional impact of the latter film in favour of the more simplistic storytelling of the former. Nevertheless, it’s easy to be impressed with Captain Phillips, with its superb technical presentation and strong acting right down the line. Nails will be chewed and armrests will be clenched, which is more than what can be said for a lot of movies coming out of Hollywood these days.

Taking command of freighter ship the Maersk Alabama, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is tasked with transporting cargo through the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. It’s dangerous waters for the crew, as piracy runs rampant, prompting Phillips to keep his men alert by staging consistent drills. Unfortunately, Phillips is soon faced with real danger when four armed Somali pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), successfully board the vessel, seeking to hold the crew hostage in exchange for millions of dollars in ransom money. While Phillips’ crew remain in lockdown in the engine room, the captain is captured at gunpoint, careful to cooperate with his kidnappers to minimise casualties. Events begin to turn against the pirates, though, forcing them into the ship’s lifeboat. But they choose to take Phillips with them in a last-ditch attempt for fortune.

Adapted from Phillips’ own memoirs, Billy Ray’s script unfortunately omits a vital component of the real-life story. See, Phillips was specifically advised to remain at least 600 miles off the Somali coast, but purposely ignored this order, navigating through dangerous pirate territory nevertheless. Phillips is thus at fault for what happened, a fact that has been emphasised by Phillips’ crew, who launched lawsuits and have publically stated this his recklessness put their lives in danger. By excluding this aspect, Greengrass’ film paints Phillips as an all-round hero, neglecting what had the potential to be a fascinating moral undercurrent. Sure, the film should be judged as an adaptation rather than a documentary, but it nevertheless feels overly vanilla and safe, and a layer of absorbing complexity would’ve been added if Phillips was forced to confront the fact that he has to shoulder some of the blame.

Fortunately, Captain Phillips ultimately gets more right than wrong. Before the pirate takeover of the vessel, Greengrass offers efficient scenes of character development, depicting Phillips as just a regular guy who kisses his wife (Catherine Keener) goodbye before leaving for what’s expected to be another simple job. Greengrass also shows the other side of the coin, contrasting this against the hostile lifestyle in Somalia, where Muse carefully chooses a crew of pirates. Miraculously, there’s a sense of realism to all of this, as Greengrass refuses to add any Hollywood sensationalism to the proceedings. The actual pirate takeover is one of the most enthralling sequences of the year due to its sheer intensity; it’s more terrifying than most horror movies from the past few years. Hanks sheds his movie star sensibilities to play Phillips, placing forth his most believable work in years. It’s possible to get lost in the illusion, which is a massive credit to Hanks. You feel his anxiety and fear, and towards the end you genuinely believe that he’s in shock. He’s getting older, but Hanks is still one of the most reliable thespians in the industry.

The immediacy of Greengrass’ filmmaking ensures that nothing in Captain Phillips feel staged or fake. The ship was not reconstructed in a Hollywood studio – filming took place on the Alabama’s sister ship, hence everything from the bridge to the mess hall looks authentic. Greengrass keeps the picture grounded throughout, infusing it with maturity and class, justifying all of the Oscar chatter. The movie eventually leaves the Alabama’s decks, taking to the seas inside a tiny lifeboat. There’s an immense sense of claustrophobia during these scenes, and you feel the sweltering, aggressive atmosphere as Muse and his dispirited men keep Phillips hostage while the U.S. Navy considers its options. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is exceptional throughout, though Greengrass struggles to maintain an agreeable pace once the action shifts to the lifeboat. The second half is too overlong, with the experience eventually becoming gruelling and repetitive. At least ten or fifteen minutes could’ve been cut to tighten the pacing, but Greengrass thankfully redeems himself for a marvellous climax. Captain Phillips does not deliver the gut-wrenching emotional sucker-punch of United 93, but the finale is nevertheless very powerful. In fact, the final five minutes are borderline unforgettable, with harrowing images of Phillips’ kidnapping ordeal being brought to an end.

It’s perhaps best to watch Captain Phillips with minimal knowledge of the real-life occurrences, as you feel more tension. We know that Phillips will survive, but if you don’t know how the situation was resolved, you will be chewing your fingernails to the bone, wondering what’s about to happen next. And even if you do know all of the specifics of the event, Greengrass’ film gives you the opportunity to experience what it would be like to be stuck in such a terrifying predicament. It’s a true slice-of-life movie, and it’s both absorbing and intense.


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