Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips photo starrating-5stars.jpgPerhaps the greatest triumph a movie can achieve is portraying a crisis so honestly, so purely, that it goes beyond the point of mere filmed entertainment. You feel as if you’re experiencing the genuine tragedy of real life. Captain Phillips is that type of film.

Director Paul Greengrass once again proves he is master of the exhilarating docudrama. United 93 (2006) was a flawless piece of filmmaking. This given that stories about 9/11 have an unquestionably high degree of difficulty. Then there was his outstanding early career effort, Bloody Sunday (2002) which addressed the British massacre of Irish civil rights protestors in 1972. Now comes Captain Phillips based on the terrifying true account of a merchant mariner who was taken hostage by Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean in 2009. The 5 day ordeal began with the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, an American container ship. Captain Phillips is arguably a simpler saga to tackle, but it’s no less overwhelming in scope. As far as I’m concerned, every heart-pounding adventure constructed from a horrifying true incident should be offered to Paul Greengrass first. If he passes, then open the field to other directors.

From the moment Phillips first spies the pirates as a blip on his radar, Paul Greengrass manages to create suspense and not let up until the second the credits start rolling. In between, the stress is so incredible, there are times where you must remember to breathe.  Tom Hanks is brilliant in actualizing a figure we identify with immediately. I’ve often felt the beloved 2 time Academy Award winner is so famous, so recognizable, it’s hard for me to forget that I am watching Tom Hanks the actor. But here he loses himself in the character, giving a nuanced and honest performance. He easily conveys decency as well as fear without even speaking. Hanks acts simply through his eyes in a way that you cannot teach. We imagine what it is like to be him, what we would do in that situation, and marvel at the instances where his carefully chosen words gives indirect directions to the crew on how to proceed. He makes us believe he really is in danger. We lose ourselves in a movie.

Captain Phillips is based on Richard Phillips own memoir. Despite being told from his point of view, the production does an admirable job at lending the antagonists a voice. It would’ve been easy to present the Somali raiders as a simplistic version of evil vs. the good unarmed crew of the Maersk. Though I never had sympathy for the pirates, the director presents enough of their predicament that you see them as human, and not solely as barbaric savages out for a quick score. We come to understand the reasons for the relentless drive in their undertaking. We appreciate how high the stakes are for these pirates to succeed. Actor Barkhad Abdi holds his own as the chief pirate Muse. He is a threatening presence, a gaunt slender wisp of a man that is nevertheless frightening. He is not someone to be toyed with. He’s mesmerizing and his impressive contribution is key to the picture.

Captain Phillips is the perfect combination of a white knuckle thriller coupled with the grounded seriousness of reality. Although it undoubtedly manipulates facts for the benefits of entertainment, this doesn’t play out as a Hollywoodization. There are no perfectly timed witty quips or muscular displays of heroism. The scenes aren’t staged as superficial thrills in the service of a glitzy action picture.  Greengrass frequently employs hand held cameras. The technique is exquisitely effective in creating authenticity. It looks like the actual found footage of a harrowing event. Crew members behave very much in the way you’d expect real people who aren’t trained for combat to act. Tom Hanks comes across as a man, an ordinary man, in extraordinary circumstances. He is forced to act under duress given extreme hardship. By the end, the tension has built to such a level that you’re glad when the intensity is over. The effect is such a release. Captain Phillips is a searing drama of the individual pushed to the breaking point in order to survive.  It’s also one of the very best films of 2013.

28 Responses to “Captain Phillips”

  1. I will catch this one soon! I almost saw it last night but the girlfriend didn’t want an intense movie. Great review, Mark. Glad to know it’s the thriller-like film we’d expect from Greengrass with the sense of realism that he brings that only elevates his films even further.


  2. Good review Mark. I loved this movie and consider it one of my favorites of the year so far. The reason being is that it doesn’t tug on your heart-strings in the way that it’s manipulative or obvious. It gives you a story, characters, a resolution, a problem, and let’s you make up your own mind on what you think, and/or just sit back and enjoy the ride. However, “enjoy” may not be the best word since this is some tense stuff right here.


  3. I agree. This is one of the best movies of the year. I also felt like this was a documentary. It was so real. Even though it starred Tom Hanks, I felt every real emotion he put forth. Some great acting here. I loved it. 5 stars.


  4. Fantastic review. Those 5 stars have got me salivating. This just skyrocketed near the top of my “most anticipated” list. I’ve heard nothing but great things.


  5. Consider this a late reply. I really want to see this now. Didn’t know it was directed by Paul Greengrass…it turned me off because of Tom Hanks. Not a fan of his, save for Philadelphia.


  6. Excellent review Mark. Breathless, enetrtaining, believable, and as you said intense and searing. A strong candoidat for O’s next spring.


    • Oh I agree. This should be huge at the Oscars, at least for nominations. But it’s going to have tough competition – 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and American Hustle being the strongest candidates I believe.


  7. Ahh, sterling review here. Tom Hanks might not have ever been better — although that’s a scale I don’t even want to try and chart out lol.

    Captain Phillips was so good, I think I was in awe most of the time while trying to write my review, so it came out like sh*t and I’m not very satisfied with it. Then again, a lot of what I really wanted to say is tangled up in spoilers so. . . Long story short, glad to see you enjoyed this as much as I did, and impressed to see it gets the ever-elusive 5 stars from ya!


  8. Greg Skala Says:

    I think this is one of your best reviews, Mark. It is one of those I really get a lot out of reading, whether or not I ever see the movie. It satisfies like excellent literary criticism does. Thank you.


  9. GaryLee828 Says:

    I went to see this today and while I don’t think I liked it quite as much as you did, I did like it and thought it was pretty well-executed for the most part. I think the biggest problem I had with it was just that it began to get a little redundant for me about halfway through. It started to feel like other hostage films I’ve already seen…

    But as you pointed out Hanks’ performance was tremendous – and I think Abdi’s performance was outstanding, as well; i think they both deserve consideration for an Oscar nomination. Yes, even newcomer Abdi. Honestly, to me, I think his performance was the best part of this film. He acted with his eyes instead of just doing a bunch of over-the-top yelling and cursing, etc. And as you said, Tom Hanks did a great job of telling his story with his eyes, as well.

    Could we possibly see Barkhad Abdi going toe-to-toe with James Franco (Spring Breakers) for Best Supporting Actor? 🙂

    Good review!


    • I think Barkhad Abdi is a strong possibility for Best Supporting Actor. I’d love to see James Franco get a nomination as well, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be much support in Hollywood at this point for that to happen. Maybe a last minute push will occur?

      More likely are Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), Daniel Bruhl (Rush) and Bradley Cooper (American Hustle). Believe it or not, Tom Hanks himself could get a nomination in this category for a completely different film (Saving Mr. Banks) which means Hanks could actually get nominated twice this year.


  10. Already commented on this on your FB post, and finally got my own review out. If Hanks doesn’t get a nomination for this or Saving Mr Banks, I quit. Haha! 😉


    • It’s too early to make predictions, but Hanks could conceivably get nominations as Best Actor (Captain Phillips) and Best Supporting Actor (Saving Mr. Banks) for each of those films. I’d really like to see Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor as well.


  11. Well, here’s an interesting movie on more scores than one: an exciting siege and rescue piece first of all (compare it to “Argo” to the latter’s disadvantage); a glimpse of piracy as its REALLY practiced — in contrast to the kind of things we’ve seen Captain Blood, Long John Silver and Jack Sparrow indulge in; and the questions it raises but never answers: like why, if the ship regularly goes though waters of this sort the crew isn’t armed and trained, and the deck doesn’t have at least enough artillery (no, NOT water hoses!) mounted on it to disperse an Evinrude-equipped rowboat with a handful of untrained crazies aboard. To say nothing of why the people who patrol the area — whether U.S. Navy or somebody else — don’t have armed helicopters at the ready, so they can get help to somebody under attack in less than, say, half a day.

    The first hour was terrific: ordinary guys caught up in an extraordinary situation, doing their best with what they’ve been told to do. Once the captain’s on the lifeboat though, the nature of the action changes. Phillips turns passive while the attackers get less aggressive and more like the people they’re threatening. With the accumulated might of the U.S. armed forces arrayed against them — personnified in this case by a bunch of robotized soldiers — it’s hard not to start seeing the three scruffy guys in sandals as Davids up against a military Goliath.

    Curious to wonder how close to actual events the movie makers chose to keep the story. From the screen-writing angle, I would’ve shortened the film overall but lengthened the first part at the expense of the overly-stylized military stuff at the end.

    One more small point. No doubt the hand-held camera did contribute immediacy. In this case I thought is was overdone enough to become intrusive and a bit annoying.


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