“You could cut the tension in Captain Phillips with a knife…”
Some will say Captain Phillips gripped them when the colossal ship was overtaken by the Somalian pirates. Some will say it’s when Phillips becomes a hostage in a small lifeboat out in the open seas. And some will say they just watch the film and felt little emotion or nervousness during the film (a feat I presume few will possess when the film is over). For me, I was gripped from the first time I saw the trailer for the film. The trailer’s suspense, thankfully, carries over to the actual film counterpart, which is astounding, often frightening, and consistently thrilling even as it reaches over the two-hour mark in practically the same setting.
The film stars Tom Hanks in an unsurprisingly great performance as Captain Richard Phillips of an enormous ship carrying freight into the dangerous waters of the Somali Basin. Armed acts of piracy are likely, and Captain Phillips’ crew of nineteen is aware but still unarmed. All they have to defend themselves is a deafening alarm siren and several hoses stationed all over the ship.
The ship isn’t out on the water long before they spot two small boats on their radar speeding at them quickly. When they closer, they notice they are indeed armed Somalian pirates. Due to engine failure on the pirates’ part, the ship is given one more day free of trouble. However, several hours later, they regain momentum, and despite courageous and sensible efforts by the crew, they attach a metal ladder to the wall of the ship and four board, carrying assault rifles and a mindset for millions of dollars.
Immediately, the ship is taken over by Muse, played by first-time Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi (who would be justified in receiving an Oscar nomination) and three others, who plan to search the ship for the remaining crew members. After time is spent fighting, threatening, strategizing on both parties’ behalves, the four pirates take Phillips as a hostage along with $30,000 in cash in a bright orange lifeboat back to their homeland. The remaining hour and a half of the film is then devoted to hostage negotiations between the pirates, the US Navy, and Phillips, himself, in order to return the captain safely to his family.
You could cut the tension in Captain Phillips with a knife, especially the negotiation scenes. One may recall a few years back when this event took place and how the newspapers seemed to draw out every long, agonizing detail of the situation. The film does a bold job at replicating it, and showing the true complexity of such an operation that requires precision, knowledge, and assurance.
The variety of directorial effects employed by Paul Greengrass and the slick, intelligent editing by Christopher Rouse is what the film largely rests on to succeed. Greengrass can go from capturing an extreme long shot of the small lifeboat surrounded by four separate ships to articulating space and a cluttered environment inside the lifeboat within seconds. The beauty of Greengrass’s variety in directing, as well as the clearness in that it doesn’t become too cramped or disorienting is to be commended. The same thing can be said for Rouse, who gives us a linear, coherent timeline during the negotiation/chase sequences. Anything less would’ve been a confusing muddle.
Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, however, carry the show in terms of performances. Had Hanks’ performance been sloppy, it would’ve taken away from the surprisingly emotional core at the end of the film, and had Abdi’s performance been neutered at all and not been as frightening, it would’ve taken away the fear of the Somalian pirates. Thankfully, both been were up to the challenge. Hanks never appears whiny and helpless and Abdi never appears pugnacious or ridiculous.
Greengrass goes the extra mile for trying to humanize the group you never thought would be possible to humanize and those are the pirates. In the beginning of the film, we see how Phillips and his crew plan to carry out this enormous operation and then we see how the pirates plan to carry out theirs. The pirates are all young, frightening thin, and very dangerous, but they are made that way by demanding “elders” who implore and enslave them to bring back either hostages or cash or simply remain stranded out at sea. Between Prisoners and now Captain Phillips, I can’t say I’ve had more sympathy for the antagonists in films in recent times. The way you can view both films from two different and viable perspectives is thanks to intelligent writing (by Billy Ray with his novel on the real-life event as the inspiration) and the directing, by Greengrass.
Captain Phillips was almost going to be criticized from me for lacking in some emotional resonance. By the two-hour mark, I didn’t anticipate any, and was almost going to say the film was cold in that regard. However, the final few minutes of the film prove to strike an emotional chord with me in a subtle, unexpected way that I don’t believe many anticipated. A fellow patron regarded the entire film, its suspense, its emotional resonance, and its performances perfectly by simply saying, “it’s what I wish Zero Dark Thirty would’ve been.”
Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic
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