Mark Reviews Movies

Captain Phillips


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Catherine Keener, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use)

Running Time: 2:14

Release Date: 10/11/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 10, 2013

Tom Hanks' performance in Captain Phillips is almost entirely in his eyes. In them, we see him searching, thinking, and trying to determine what impromptu plan he could devise in order to save himself and, for the first part of his predicament, the lives of his crew. More importantly, we see him contemplating the severity of his situation—the realization that at any moment he may no longer be able to reason his way out of this. At any moment, those eyes might no longer see.

We note the significance of the eyes relatively early in the film, and it's clear that director Paul Greengrass intentionally establishes and emphasizes the power Hanks' eyes possess here through close-ups and medium shots that move in on or out from Hanks' face. When the film's climax arrives, Hanks' Captain Richard Phillips is blindfolded, and the scene, which contains enough tension already from everything happening around the character, takes on a secondary level of intensity.

Those eyes, which have served as our entryway into the character and have been established as the character's only means of survival, have been eliminated from the equation. There is a sense of helplessness in the proceeding moments that makes an already harrowing situation into a devastating one. The man, who spends most of the film knowing he might very well be killed, is for the first time confronted with something far more real than a hypothetical sense of knowledge.

The film, which is based on a real-life event that took place in 2009 (based on the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Phillips himself and Stephen Talty), tells a story of courage but not in broad, idealistic strokes. True courage, the film argues through action and not words, is displayed in small decisions that can have major consequences one way or another. It is in being able to see the bigger picture, even though immediate events threaten to keep one trapped in a myopic view of the here and now. Above all, courage is a matter of necessity. For Phillips, it's the necessity of keeping his crew alive and, later, his own survival.

Necessity breeds something else here, too. The film opens with a jarring juxtaposition. It first follows Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) on the drive to the airport, where he will fly to Oman to captain the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama to Kenya. They discuss the changing world and the effect it will have on their children.

As Phillips departs, the scene suddenly, unexpectedly shifts to a small village on the coast of Somalia. There, a young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is sleeping with an assault rifle hanging over his head. The soldiers of the local warlord arrive with guns and immediately begin scolding the men of the village. They should be out on the ocean to hijack ships and steal money and goods in order to pay the warlord. It is instantly and quite clear that the lives of the villagers are at stake if the men do not do as they are told.

It would be incredibly easy to keep these pirates, who eventually find Phillips' massive freighter alone outside the shipping lane, as nameless, faceless foes for Phillips and his crew to outwit and confront, but that is too easy for screenwriter Billy Ray. In this single scene, Greengrass and Ray, through the visual of so many emaciated figures and the tangible threat of men who are clearly ready to kill, create a genuine sense of understanding for the rationale of the pirates' lifestyle. Though Muse repeatedly says he is seeking money for its own sake, that explanation is just a ploy—a way to hide his own fear. Piracy is not a matter of self-enrichment but of self-preservation. It is a matter of necessity.

In creating the dynamic between Phillips and Muse based on similar motivations, Greengrass and Ray have made a film with a conscience, and on a dramatic level, it elevates the central conflict. Late in the film, Phillips tells his captor that he should give up his plan, and Muse responds, "I've come too far; I can't give up."  In almost any other hopeless situation, it's a statement that would denote the quality we come to admire in Phillips: courage. Here, it's one of desperation, and while the film doesn't attempt to sympathize with these men who put the lives of others at risk, it does try and succeed to comprehend them.

The conflict between two men who refuse to surrender is the basis of a wholly effective thriller. In the buildup to the hijacking, Phillips, a by-the-book mariner, insists that his men prepare for an encounter with pirates after receiving a warning in his email.

The sequence provides a way for Ray to detail the procedures that will follow, from the use of fire hoses that could sink a skiff to various maneuvers, and when the pirates approach, the film follows through with those measures. The tension comes as we witness them fail. Once the ship is boarded (Henry Jackman's pulsing score halts in a moment of terror when the first pirate sets foot on the ship), what follows is a battle of wits between Phillips, who tries to distract the pirates from his crew hiding in the engine room and send messages to his men on ways to hinder their hijackers, and Muse, who catches on quickly to the ruse.

After setting up the way things will unfold, the film takes a turn that changes the setting and the established conflict, flipping everything we know about the scenario on its head. It becomes a fight to remain composed in a claustrophobic lifeboat, while Phillips must take advantage of the disorder of raising tensions among the pirates without pushing them too far and find ways to help the Navy ensure his safety as much as they can in the inevitable standoff. He even tries to help the youngest member of the group of his captors. At first it appears to be a strategic move, but by the time he's shouting at the teenager to put up his hands, it's obvious he is trying to save the boy's life.

It's that focus on the humanity at the heart of this situation that gives Captain Phillips its notable weight. It is never more powerful than in its culmination, a wail of joy combined with horror—a primal scream of release that cannot fathom what has unfolded.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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