Sunday, November 17, 2013

Captain Phillips




Unlike most of the movies I cover on this site, Captain Phillips sort of snuck up on me this year. Despite being a huge fan of the Bourne series (see my review of The Bourne Legacy for more on that), I wasn't even aware of the latest film from director Paul Greengrass until it started to get pre-release Oscar buzz. I made a mental note to go and see this movie closer to its original release, but my hectic schedule prevented that from happening until last night. Just like with Gravity I'm a little late to the game with this review, but I'm very glad to finally have the chance to post about it now.

Captain of a large international transport vessel, Rich Phillips is particularly wary of his latest assignment which will take him around the coast of Africa on his way to Mombasa. Meanwhile, pirates on the shores of Somalia organize groups to take over and hold ransom a large ship in the hopes of earning an enormous payday from the insurance company. Captain Phillips gives in to his unsettled feelings and orders his crew to go through a variety of emergency drills just as two skiffs carrying armed pirates rapidly approach their ship from behind.

From the opening scene in this film, the cinematography and the performance by Tom Hanks combine to make your stomach clench in anticipation. Through subtle camera angles and nervous ticks, the title character's anxiety about the journey infects the audience as well, never letting up until the credits roll. Just like Gravity this is an incredibly intense film, and the real-life aspect of it makes it even more palpable. The casting in this film is tremendous, and only after the film was over did I even think about the characters being portrayed by actors. From the crew of the MV Maersk Alabama to the Navy officers and Somalian pirates, every one of the performances feel entirely genuine.

Of course, even in a film made up of terrific acting there are still standouts in this cast. Tom Hanks gives a tremendous performance as the titular Captain and everything from his tense interactions with pirates to the commands given to his crew couldn't be done any better. Even after all the great acting by Hanks throughout the film, it's his character's final moments on screen that really push this over the edge into Oscar-caliber. While I don't always agree with what the Academy deems worthy of it's end-of-year awards, you can count on Hanks being nominated for Best Actor for this commanding performance. The other standout is Barkhad Abdi, a relative unknown playing the emaciated-looking pirate named "Muse". His twitchy mannerisms and haunting visage give him an almost zombie-like quality that's incredibly creepy. Yet, throughout the film he somehow makes you feel a twinge of sympathy for the drastic measures he is forced to take.

A lot of what gives this film its reality isn't merely the true story on which it's based, but also the hand-held style of cinematography utilized for Captain Phillips. It's obvious that a lot of this film was shot on location, which really puts the audience in the environment that Captain Phillips is struggling to overcome. While this is a great strength of the film, it can also be a detriment to those averse to the "shaky-cam" used in the Bourne films Greengrass previously made. Though I'm not challenging its accuracy, the content in this film is also a bit tough for a PG-13 movie and some of the images and situations may frighten younger viewers.

While this is a great film, there are a few things that bothered me about it. For one thing, this movie is long. Running at almost two and half hours, the tension is so high for so long that it begins to exhaust the viewer by about the two hour mark. There's a tricky balance at play with movies like this, as the longer a film with such high stakes continues without any kind of release (like humor) the more the audience just wants a resolution, regardless of their feelings about the protagonists. The other problem I had was something that will only bother fans of Christopher Nolan's masterful Inception. While that movie is clearly a huge inspiration for almost every action/suspense film made since its release, the score at the end of Captain Phillips almost literally copies and pastes Hans Zimmer's ending music from the mind-bending 2010 film. I'm a big fan of Henry Jackman's work, and I don't necessarily blame the filmmakers for that decision, but it does take me out of the moment slightly when it's such an obvious rip-off.

Other than that, this is a terrific film that will keep you gripping anything within reach until the credits roll. You'll also want to talk about this film for hours after it's over, as there are so many nuances to the performances, characters and dialogue throughout. It's sure to garner a multitude of Oscar nominations, and I have to say that it deserves them. This is another film poised to make my top ten list (though it will definitely be crowded). I give Captain Phillips a strong three and a half stars.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is rated PG-13 for intense sustained sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use