In the opening moments of Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks’ title character chats with his wife (Catherine Keener) about how tough it is for up-and-comers to get their captain’s stripes compared to when he was coming up. “You gotta be strong to survive out there,” he says, lamenting the competitive environment in which 50 guys interview for every open position. The mantra of being strong is one that appears many times throughout the film, and it applies both to Phillips – whose ship is hijacked by Somali pirates – and to the lead pirate as well, a constantly disenfranchised man desperate to complete the task he’s assigned. Though it’s based on a well-known true story, Captain Phillips is one of the most intense films of the year, and with stellar performances by the leads and excellent direction by Paul Greengrass, it’s also one of the most profound.
In April of 2009, Captain Rich Phillips commands a large container ship called the Maersk Alabama along the African coast. There are reports of pirates in the region, so he runs his 20-man crew through a drill to make sure they’re prepared in case anything comes their way, but the drill quickly turns to a real world event when two skiffs carrying Somali pirates appear on the radar. Though the Americans are able to briefly hold them off, the pirates are not deterred from their mission: they’re looking for a big payday. They board the ship, and the growing dread comes to a head as Phillips must protect himself and his men to prevent tragedy.
Greengrass and writer Billy Ray give the Somalis more compelling characterizations than simply “the bad guys,” and as the film regularly cross-cuts between Phillips and the main pirate, Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), we’re meant to see that these men are obviously different from one another, but they’re both doing a job the best way they know how. As their worlds collide, the film examines themes of masculinity and what it means to be a man when situations spin out of control, and though it never condones the pirates’ actions, it doesn’t outright vilify them, either. Anyone with a soul should get the feeling that things here are more complicated than simple definitions of “right” and “wrong,” and gripping performances from Hanks and Abdi help to put things in perspective.
But the filmmakers aren’t only interested in quickening the audience’s pulse – they want to make sure we’re intellectually stimulated, as well. Muse tells Phillips about how he and his men once pulled off a multi-million dollar score. If that’s the case, Phillips asks, then why is Muse still in the game? Muse tells the captain to shut up, but the look on the pirate’s face says it all: he may have orchestrated the heist, but he didn’t reap the rewards of it. He’s caught in the same corporate rut of working for The Man that’s all too familiar to our society, and when Phillips suggests there has to be some other way of making money aside from being a fisherman or kidnapping people, Muse lays the film’s message out loud and clear: “Maybe in America.”
The movie switches from a hijacking scenario to a kidnapping situation when the pirates nab Phillips and toss him in their getaway pod, and the film becomes even more claustrophobic and suspenseful than before. Captain Phillips is two hours and fifteen minutes long, and when Hanks is trapped in that tiny escape pod with his captors, the uncomfortable nature of those sequences momentarily took me out of the experience. But though the pacing may feel as if it starts to drag a bit, it’s all in the greater service of the story and the characters; we’re right there with Phillips, and Greengrass’s verite style allows us to better relate to this character.
Abdi is absolutely magnetic on screen, an especially impressive feat considering this is his first acting role. It’s a good thing he’s so mesmerizing, because Greengrass needed someone who could stand toe to toe with Hanks, who does some of the best dramatic work of his career. I liked his performance until his final scene, at which point I was utterly in awe of it. His emotional breakdown is his finest and most memorable on-screen moment: in it, we see the enormity of the entire film crumble from his body as he struggles to comprehend the ordeal he just endured. It’s the film’s most powerful and moving scene, allowing a brief moment of reflection after the intensity mercifully subsides.
Captain Phillips is the latest movie of 2013 to feature a distorted version of the American Dream (alongside Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, The Bling Ring, and probably a couple of others), and though one of the pirates [spoilers for Captain Phillips for the remainder of this sentence] is headed to America by the film’s end, it’s certainly not the way in which he thought he’d make it there. Harrowing, hypnotic, and full of humanity, Captain Phillips is a hell of a film.
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