On the surface, “Captain Phillips” has much in common with last year’s Oscar-lauded “Argo.” Both are well-paced thrillers based on real-life stories, both put their focus on one man who strives against very tough odds, and both are harrowingly intense in their final minutes. It’s there that the similarities end, however, thanks mostly to the singular directing style applied by “Phillips’s” Paul Greengrass. He has created a spare, claustrophobic gem out of the true story of the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips (portrayed here by Tom Hanks), who was taken by Somali pirates in a lifeboat after their failed attempt to hijack the shipping freighter Maersk Alabama.
Greengrass, who directed the second two “Bourne” movies and “United 93,” among others, is known for his films’ shaky, handheld camerawork and sense of realism. Even when superhuman Bourne is singlehandedly wrecking the CIA, Greengrass portrays his work with such intricacy that it seems like it could have happened. When I sat down to watch “Captain Phillips,” I expected it to be gripping; I didn’t expect it to be so educational.
The film plays in the best way like a Tom Clancy novel, immersing you in the world of civilian and naval piracy-prevention procedure. You’re surprised by the cleverness of Phillips and his crew with their delaying tactics and fascinated by the U.S. Navy’s response, a mix of precision planning and overwhelming force that terrifies the four men who have taken the captain captive.
It is here that the educational aspect meets the cinematic one, accomplishing the movie’s neatest trick. If you didn’t read the news in 2009, you may not know whether or not Phillip makes it home, but the movie telegraphs early that those pirates aren’t getting back to Somalia. After failing to pilot the freighter and netting little in the way of material goods, the pirates grab Phillips as a consolation prize, hoping for a ransom payout once they get ashore. Even though four men with guns may be able to take over a freighter, they are no match for even a fraction of the U.S. military complex, a fact that the audience and Phillips intuitively know.
Thus, the film’s latter half is a taut waiting game as the pirates slowly realize their utter failure. Tensions rise on the lifeboat as a desire for survival wars with a desire for a successful mission and flaring tempers threaten to destroy Phillips as collateral damage. The camerawork, already conveying the choppy waves and lack of personal boundaries onboard the Alabama, is used perfectly here, combining with the increasingly doubtful and fearful faces of the pirates (played well by first-time actors Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali) to illustrate a group of people physically and emotionally adrift. These men did a bad thing, but one can’t help but feel rather sorry for them; they never meant for anyone to get hurt or for things to go so horribly awry.
Of course, none of this works without strong acting at the forefront, and Hanks and Abdi (who plays the pirates’ leader, Muse) deliver. Abdi inhabits a desperate man from a tense situation, full of frustration and unease, and Hanks portrays a scared but strong leader, forced by his situation to behave more stoically than anyone should have to bear. The façade falls for a moment at the film’s end, making for one of Hanks’ most powerful performances.
Some hay has been made of “Captain Phillips’s” neglect of the socioeconomic and political concerns behind modern-day piracy. That criticism isn’t entirely accurate, but more importantly, it misses the point. The film derives its power from its intensely personal stakes; it’s at its best when the drama is delivered via up-close shots of the battle between Hanks’s and Abdi’s wills. Where “Argo” works because of its widescreen examination of the CIA’s and Hollywood’s machinations to get the hostages home, “Phillips” thrives by turning the microscope on its stars.
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