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Captain Phillips

2013 | 134 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1

Captain Phillips


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Movie appeal




Theatrical release date

 11 October, 2013
 18 October, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

Box office




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Captain Phillips Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, October 7, 2013

Director Paul Greengrass makes one type of movie, but he does it very well. Electing a documentary-style approach to works of fact (“Bloody Sunday,” “Flight 93”) and fiction (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”), Greengrass embraces a cinematic intensity that’s often overpowering to watch, with specific use of shaky-cam to thrust viewers into the heat of the moment. “Captain Phillips” plays directly into the helmer’s wheelhouse, offering a true story that makes extensive use of personal perspective and tight procedural timing. It’s a riveting picture, but one that seems like a safe choice for Greengrass, presented in a way that’s familiar to those already intimate with his work. Nails will be chewed, armrests will be gripped, but “Captain Phillips” feels like a rehash in its cold-blooded details.

Embarking on a voyage around Africa on a cargo ship, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is all business, striving to whip his crew into shape as they cut through international waters near Somalia, home to a business of piracy that’s brought down a great number of freighters. Sensitive to his risky surroundings, Phillips orders drills to keep his men alert, only to find himself faced with real danger when a group of four Somali pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), board the vessel with plans to hold the crew hostage to collect millions in ransom money. Cooperating while careful to follow procedure, Phillips manages to stymie Muse and his enforcers long enough to protect his men, only to be taken away in a lifeboat with the Somalis, forced to endure their confusion and anger as Muse maps out another way to an easy fortune.

Based on an incident that occurred in 2009, scripted by Billy Ray, “Captain Phillips” is treated with a docudrama approach, sticking to the basics of characterization before the central conflict commences. We great Phillips as a concerned dad preparing for another job on another ship, kissing his wife (Catherine Keener) goodbye before he leaves for what’s expected to be straightforward work. The contrast to this causal American comfort is Somalia, where Muse is selected to take part in the piracy mission, managing the habitual hostility of a dry, barren land populated with armed young men, picking his crew before they take to the choppy waters. From there, “Captain Phillips” goes about detailing the routine of cargo ship personnel, watching the fearless leader handle the slack nature of the unionized men and their preference for extended coffee breaks, hoping to prepare them for the worst as the ship moves into dangerous territory.

Greengrass sets the scene with ease, eschewing fine detail to solidify Phillips’s temperament, his icy professionalism, before all hell breaks loose. Time with Muse emphasizes his demands, questing to take down a massive ship in the name of a monster payday, refusing to back down from his mission. The first hour is devoted to this collision of command, observing Phillips use his training to protect his crew, who’ve hidden in the bowels of the ship as planned, working to render the vessel useless to the Somalis. It’s tense, aggressive imagery, with Muse building himself up as a master pirate in control of the situation, filled with bravado and distrust as he forces Phillips to do his bidding. The battle of wills and socioeconomic standing is engrossing, especially when gunplay and near misses contribute to the thriller elements of the story, creating a persistent divide between the sides that motivates the second half of the movie into an impossibly tight space.

“Captain Phillips” doesn’t stay on the cargo ship for the duration of the picture, eventually taking to the seas inside the ship’s tiny lifeboat. The change in setting generates a claustrophobic atmosphere, locked inside a sweltering, aggressive environment with Muse, his dispirited men, and Phillips, while somewhere nearby, the U.S. Navy considers its options, catching up to the incident with plans to diffuse the situation. “Captain Phillips” continues its quest to dissect tensions between Phillips and the Somalis, yet there’s a militaristic tone that takes possession of the movie, feeding into Greengrass’s obsession with military procedures, viewed in his 2010 misfire, “Green Zone.” If you’ve seen the helmer’s previous work, little here is going to register as innovation, though the script deserves credit for not bending over backwards to make the Somalis sympathetic. While talk of piracy as an only option for African survival is included, Muse and his quarreling subordinates are depicted as dim, violent types easily hoodwinked by Phillips and his crew. They are the villains of the piece, offering all the unwarranted beatings and itchy-trigger-finger paranoia the film can handle, while American rescue efforts are depicted as orderly, steamrolling endeavors that cannot and will not fail. Although the lifeboat interior scenes are loaded with tension, they’re frequently diluted by the predictable precision of the retrieval.

There was another film this year that covered similar ground. Last summer’s “A Hijacking” was masterful in its rawness and realism, unearthing the unsettling authenticity of Somali piracy patience -- it’s dogged monetary fixation being the real weapon in this scary game of occupation. However, the picture didn’t have the star power of Tom Hanks, who delivers a sensational performance of authority melting into panic, somehow saving his true emotional might for the finale, where the weight of it all finally knocks Phillips flat. It’s an outstanding articulation of suppressed trauma and hindered control that keeps “Captain Phillips” on task, winning back the viewer when Greengrass loses himself in the thick of planning stages. In fact, without Hanks, I’m fearful of the distance the director might’ve achieved here, relaying on old habits to work through a story that, in a way, he’s already told a few times before.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Max Martini, David Warshofsky, John Magaro, Chris Mulkey
Director: Paul Greengrass

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