***1/2 out of ****
Captain Phillips is a very well made movie and a pretty good example of how a movie’s worth is not based on its entertainment value. Halfway through, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Its portrayal of the 2009 Somali pirate raid of a U.S. Container ship feels very honest and respectful to the people involved in the crisis. What the film does to simulate the traumatic situation starts to feel monotonous after a while, but wouldn’t that be the point?
At the beginning, we are introduced to Richard Phillips as he chats with his wife (Catherine Keener) on the way to the airport where he will be catching a flight to the east African coast where a cargo ship awaits its captain. Phillips is played by Tom Hanks in what will surely be remembered as one of the highlight performances of his career. I’m not joking. We’ve seen quite a variety from him. Some of his performances, people have called overrated. You’d have to be pretty spiteful to say such a thing about him in this role.
After the title character’s intro, we meet Muse, a Somali living in an impoverished costal village being visited by bullying warlords who demand that he put together a crew and get to work at sea. Barkhad Abdi, in this role, and the other Somalis are faces we are not used to seeing in the movies. These actors are all first-timers, gathered from a highly concentrated refugee population living in Minnesota. Their unscripted banter and malnourished figures, wielding AK-47s, provide an undeniably strong antagonism that is just as human as it is threatening. The point is made: They have nothing to lose.
The movie has a relentless atmosphere of tension generated by quick-cutting and shaky camera-work -two trademarks of its director, Paul Greengrass. His work, whether seen through the action thriller setpieces of the two Bourne sequels, or the speculative re-enactment of the doomed 9/11 flight in United 93, has been intent on displaying action in the form of documentary-style filmmaking. Camerawork deliberately lacks sophistication, and therefore, any sense of anticipation. While I believe this method to be effective, it has been done to death by other filmmakers in the decade since Greengrass brought it to the mainstream. I don’t necessarily think that it creates the ultimate “you are there” feeling that some people claim it to have. It’s more of a “camera crew was there” feeling. After seeing Gravity in theaters last week, I was amazed at how the long controlled takes with wide-angle vision provided a very strong participatory kind of vision.
The tight zooms and quick cutting of Captain Phillips are not relatable to real-life perception. It’s Greengrass’ excellent work with his cast-members and the real locations in which he films them, that provide the realism of this film.
What makes Hanks work very well in this film is the result of his interaction with non-actors, throwing scripted dialogue out the window. As his character, he looks genuinely unprepared for every confrontation. What makes the atmosphere of the film believable is due to a production at sea on a real carrier ship. Visual effects shots are seldom. The only production element I could have done without was the excessive use of music, which played obnoxiously over many scenes that were already too loud and intense to require any extra enhancement.
This movie is likely to be an Oscar contender but it is challenged with the controversy in its portrayal of Phillips. Some crewmembers, currently involved in a lawsuit against the shipping company, have called into question Phillips’ choice to keep the ship close to the coast in spite of numerous piracy warnings. Regardless of whether or not the real Richard Phillips is the hero that this film depicts, it would not change my opinion of what makes Captain Phillips a good movie. I have nothing but praise for how this film ends. After a team of Navy SEALs pull off a high-tech rescue that must have been unthinkable to the Somalis, the movie makes a jump from life-threatening tension to the irony of horror that can come with survival.