Captain Phillips– Movie Review
At the beginning of Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass‘ riveting and layered thriller, Capt. Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) worry about how hard their children will have to fight to get ahead in a rapidly changing world. The next scene is a mob of wannabe Somali pirates literally paying leaders to let them work. Well, all things are relative.
What’s Greengrass’ point- that geography and birth are, to some degree, our destinies? That leadership has a tipping point that leads to violence? It’s unclear, but in any event, the parallel story lines and multiple perspectives are part of what make the film so engaging.
Captain Phillips tells the true story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, which was taken by four armed Somali pirates in April 2009. One hijacker was captured by the crew, but an attempt to exchange the hijacker for Phillips failed, and all four pirates took off with him in a lifeboat. The US Navy took control of the situation, and attempted to negotiate Phillips’ release. After four days, negotiations deteriorated and Phillips was thought to be in immediate danger, so Navy SEAL snipers killed three pirates almost simultaneously. The fourth was on board a Navy ship to negotiate, and surrendered.
Greengrass (United 93, Bloody Sunday) is a master of real-life tragedy thrillers; I won’t attempt to explain how he keeps a two-plus hour film so engaging. But it likely has something to do with the numerous players and plot lines (the Captain, the crew in hiding, the pirates’ internal tensions, the Navy) that allow him to bounce around, never letting any focus get stale.
“We’ve all got bosses,” Phillips tells the lead hijacker towards the end, rebuffing the pirate’s passing of the buck. And Greengrass spends much time following the chain of command: Phillips gently plays the bad guy, pushing his crew off their coffee break; Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirate captain, answers to warlords while handling a hotheaded crew; even a US Navy commander has the White House breathing down his neck. (Suspiciously, little mention is made of Phillips’ corporate leaders.)
The performances are all around good, though the plot is the real driving element here. Hanks as Phillips is characteristically fantastic, restrained and calculating until the end, then just letting everything out.
Interestingly, the film compares closely in theme but very differently in execution with another of this season’s best and most successful movies: Gravity is the austere and minimalist story of a single person. Captain Phillips, despite its title, is an intricate look at a collision of hierarchical organizations. Gravity relishes in stunning wide shots of space; Phillips, despite a few oceanic shots, is mostly claustrophobic close ups. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Stone has only herself to get by, and is caught in literally a hermetic environment and conditions. The numerous players in Phillips must constantly respond to the unpredictable actions of everyone around. Gravity is fable-like and at times heavy-handed; Phillips is gritty. Gravity is about God and doubt; Phillips is about men and conviction. But both show heroes constantly fighting, recalculating, and stopping at nothing to get home.
Did you see Captain Phillips? What did you think? Let us know in the Comments.