Review: Captain Phillips
In 2009, a United States cargo ship helmed by Captain Richard Phillips was beset by four Somali pirates off the coast of Africa. Phillips and his crew attempt to survive and outwit the gun-toting raiders while awaiting help from afar. If you’re not familiar with how this true story played out, wait to read up until you see this dramatized version of events.
It begins and ends with Tom Hanks in a role that you’d be hard-pressed to find a better actor inhabiting. Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Faysal Ahmed are chilling, but let’s not pretend like we know who they are, or what it’s like to portray a Somali pirate.
Captain Phillips doesn’t actually fade to black halfway through and declare the end of the first act, but there is a very clear moment where the film readies to change course. When it happens, you better catch your breath.
It’s not as if one half is tense and the other isn’t, because the whole film, smartly directed by Paul Greengrass, is rife with anxiousness and peril. It’s just that from a sort of distressing and eerie beginning progresses a story that becomes claustrophobic and incredibly harrowing.
Perhaps knowing what happens in this true story may affect your viewing, but I doubt it. The tale of a man whose ship is taken by Somali pirates on the east coast of Africa is so superbly told and acted, triumphing at storytelling; it’s not about being cunning.
Hanks portrays a man of both duty and humanity, shown immediately during a scene in which his wife drives him to the airport, and throughout as he takes calculated risks to shake the pirates.
The first half is more wide open, taking place often in the daylight, with Phillips navigating both the ocean and the interior of his vast ship. The tension is palpable, and Greengrass with his judicious use of shaky cam and snap zooms infuses realism. The turn takes place almost in slow motion, and while the tension stays at a peak, the journey towards the finish is more intimate, uncomfortable, and unnerving. It is in this second half that Greengrass challenges you to relate to Phillips’ abductors, young men of poor health and limited futures doing what they need to do.
Captain Phillips is another example of a director controlling and expertly telling a particularly recent story. Not unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the last thirty minutes is a masterpiece of direction, as suspense boils over, whether or not you know the ending.
In regards to that ending, there is an incredibly powerful moment that comes – it’s when you let out your breath, knowing it’s all over. Greengrass cradles you in the final minute as you succumb to exhaustion and try to regroup, recollecting the events of a film in which you’re paralyzed with anticipation every second of the way.
Should You See It?
Yes, as soon as you can. If you know the story, you won’t be disappointed – you’re be in it. If you’re not familiar with what happened, let Greengrass and Hanks take you (whatever you know – don’t watch the trailer).