Captain Phillips (2013): Greengrass’ Most Fully Realized Film, Starring Tom Hanks

Combining effectively the conventions of an epic adventure and the intimacy of one man’s survival drama, “Captain Phillips” is from start to finish an edge-of-your seat, nail-biting thriller. That the film is based on a factual event, the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by four Somali pirates, makes the reliving of this traumatic occurrence all the more remarkable.

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The film is anchored by the stunningly subtle, multi-nuanced performance of Tom Hanks, which should easily earn him yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination. “Captain Phillips” represents Hanks’ best work since “Cast Away” in 2000, and in many ways, it is more impressive–in complexity, shading, and understatement–than his consecutive Oscar-winning roles in “Philadelphia” in 1993, and “Forrest Gump,” a year later. Grounded and unadorned, it’s a performance with no tricks, no makeup, no eccentric speech, no pathos, not even asking for sympathy for the captain’s scary plight and unbelievable resilience.

World-premiering as opening night of the 2013 N.Y. Film Fest, “Captain Phillips” will be released by Sony nationwide on October 11.
With strong critical support (and PG-13 rating), the movie should do well across the board, surpassing the box-office gross of Greengrass’ “United 93” and “Green Zone.”

As Greengrass’ most fully realized film to date (and, with the exception of “Green Zone,” he has only made good movies), “Captain Phillips” immediately establishes itself as a frontrunner in the upcoming Oscar race in various categories: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (Adapted), Actor, Supporting Actor (Somali newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who’s terrific) and technical categories, especially cinematography and sound.

Thematically, “Captain Phillips” is a logical follow-up for Greengrass, whose work has always dealt with urgent political events, from “Bloody Sunday,” the film that put him on the map, a chronicle about British Army bloody massacre in Northern Ireland, to “United 93,” about the 9/11 hijacking thwarted by the passengers, to “Green Zone,” about the Iraq War.

Though they are very different works, in its control of the elements that make film the most exciting and visceral medium, “Captain Phillips” recalls Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty,” which unfortunately never reached the public it deserved due to various political and ideological attacks.

There are several links between the two films, prime among which is the striking cinematography by Barry Ackroyd, one of the most brilliant lensers in Hollywood. Moreover, both films celebrates American heroism based on intuition, intelligence, and resourcefulness in resolving global problems, be they hunting public enemy number one, Osama bin Laden, or rescuing a genuinely heroic American, who begins as an ordinary Joe (the guy next door) and goes on to become an extraordinary citizen.

Arguably no actor in the American cinema today (not even Matt Damon, star of Greengrass’ “Bourne” movies and “Green Zone”) can portray as compellingly and as effortlessly as Tom Hanks an ordinary American–a committed professional and devoted family man.

Greengrass and his scribe Billy Ray have rightly realized that the casting and performance of the film’s titular role are crucial to the ultimate impact of their picture, both dramatically and emotionally. And so, for the most part, Phillips (Cap as he is called by his American crew, and Irish by the Somali hoodlums) is not only center-stage, but also provides the Point-of-View; almost everything seen is observed from his perspective.

The screenplay by Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”), based upon the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, is functional.

The narrative is roughly divided into five segments: Phillips farewell from his wife and taking control of the ship; the Somali assault on the ship, holding Phillips hostage in a tiny lifeboat, and the rescue mission conducted by Navy Seals and assisted by other agencies. (This is my breakdown of the text).

One can fault the scenario for not depicting in greater detail the broader political contexts (there is no reference to the U.S. President or Administration), or the recurrent occurrences of such piracy incidents and their effects on globalization. (More about it later).

The story begins in Vermont, where Captain Phillips leaves his family to sail cargo (including food aid) halfway around the world. Driving to the airport, Phillips chats with his wife (Catherine Keener) about timely concerns, their children, the rapidly changing world we live in, the unknown future, and so on.

Cut to Somalia, where a former coastal fisherman named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) plans to overtake one of the high-value ships–which, significantly, is unarmed–passing through his coast. When first observed, the Somali pirate-captain is mercilessly screening candidates for the life-risking plot. He is ruthless with his crew and the smallest argument or provocation leads to brutal fights.
Greengrass must have learned a lesson or two from “Green Zone,” his 2011 film, which was both a critical and commercial failure. Set seven years into the divisive Iraq War, that movie was timely but diffuse, lacking focus and erring in fictionalizing some crucial facts. In contrast, dramatically speaking, “Captain Phillips” is more narrowly focused in its depiction of the relationship between two strong and stubborn individuals: Captain Richard Phillips and Muse, the Somali who takes him hostage.

In the ensuing standoff, 145 miles off the Somali coast, the two men engage in a fateful battle of wills, a struggle for sheer physical survival, which is marked by twists and turns as well as the operation of forces that are beyond their control. Greengrass and Ray should be commended for refusing to stereotype Muse as a one-dimensional villain, offering in several crucial dialogue scenes, background stories, psychological make-up, and motivation.

Stranger than fiction: If you did not know that the movie is based on a true event, you would not believe what you see. At various points, the highly alert Phillips uses his wits and intuition in outwitting his captors: causing a foot injury on his ship, manipulating the youngest and most naïve pirate, asking for water to gain time, grabbing a piece of paper to write a loving note to his wife, even jumping into the water when given a chance to piss.

Greengrass and his scribe are less successful in their critical expose of the underlying economic divide that sets the event (and others like it) in motion. Through the confrontation between the resilient Phillips and the desperate Somali pirates, Greengrass aims to reveal the rift between those who are part of the ebb and flow of international trade, and those who are caught outside or on the periphery of it.

The filmmakers could have dug deeper into the great economic divide that prevails between the haves and the have-nots. Phillips, who represents the stream of the current global economy, is contrasted with the pirates have embraced the facile and superficial values of the American Dream—getting quick cash by using physical force. Muse brags that in previous piracy of a Dutch ship, they were able to get millions of dollars, and he’s offended when Phillips is willing to give him all the money in the safe—a meager amount of $30,000.
The second major shortcoming is the lack of distinctive personalities for the other three Somali; the script offers only bits and pieces of information.

Ultimately, “Captain Phillips” is more compelling as a visceral experience, with Greengrass going out of his way to make it immersive. The stand-off between Phillips and Muse is a thrilling high-seas adventure, without the gimmicks and tricks and macho bravado that usually accompany this genre.

Though the outcome of the event is known, the last reel of the film, which deals with the rescue mission, is nothing short of brilliant. Greengrass’ strong investigative instincts, his insistence on realism, and mastery of the thriller form (through his kinetic strategy and restless camera) merge in “Captain Phillips,” resulting in of the best American movies of this—or any other—year.

Spoiler Alert:

If you are not touched by the very last scene, in which Phillips, utterly traumatized and shocked, you should stop going to the movies. Getting a physical check-up by a female doctor, he can hardly speak, let alone answer her questions (Are you hurt? Where’s the pain?). Silent, with a numbed and numbing expression on his face, Hanks renders the most expressive and emotionally touching gesture in his long and impressive acting career.

The title cards at the end are equally shocking: Despite the ordeal, Captain Phillips returned to service in 2010, less than a year after the tumultuous incident that almost took his life.
End of Spoiler Alert

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 133 Minutes
A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Scott Rudin/Michael De Luca/Trigger Street production.
Produced by Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca.
Co-producers, Christopher Rouse, Michael Bronner.
Executive producers, Gregory Goodman, Eli Bush, Kevin Spacey.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Screenplay, Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty.
Camera, Barry Ackroyd.
Editor, Christopher Rouse.
Music, Henry Jackman; music supervisor, Michael Higham.
Production designer, Paul Kirby; set decorator, Dominic Capon; set designer, Peter Russell.
Costume designer, Mark Bridges.
Sound, Chris Munro, Tim Fraser; supervising sound editor, Oliver Tarney; re-recording mixers, Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith.
Visual effects producer, Dan Barrow; visual effects, Double Negative, Nvizible, Proof.
Stunt coordinator, Rob inch.