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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) review

October 10, 2013

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written by : Billy Ray

produced by: Michael De Luca, Dana Brunetti, Scott Rudin & Kevin Spacey

directed by: Paul Greengrass

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

runtime: 134 min.

U.S. release date: October 11, 2013

 

It was a breaking news story that seemed surreal in its reality. An American cargo ship hijacked by pirates? It sounded like a story that should have come from tall ships in the 1700s and 1800s more than a breaking news story in 2009, but there it was just the same; Somali pirates hijacking an American cargo ship, an international incident that captivated viewers for days as it unfolded. Like any worthy story, it’s now an easily recommended feature film called “Captain Phillips”.

The captain of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship out of Norfolk, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) heads to Africa for another voyage. This time he is transporting food, water and relief supplies around Africa and with a new crew to boot. The trip is only expected to take three days, but the route is through dangerous waters, even more dangerous when Phillips continues to receive warnings that there are pirates in the area. The Maersk Alabama is able to turn back one pirate attack, but a Somali pirate named Muse (Barkhard Abdl) is persistent in his attacks and manages to get on-board Phillips’ ship. Muse and three other pirates claim control of the ship and all its cargo, seeking a lucrative payday in front of them. Their plan doesn’t go quite as planned though, forcing Muse and his three fellow hijackers to improvise. Phillips is taken hostage in demand for a huge ransom, but the U.S. Navy and a Seal team have been called in. Now, it’s just a matter of time. Can Phillips be rescued before the Somali pirates kill him?

 

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As I mentioned earlier, it’s hard to believe this is a true story. Not that it isn’t realistic or believable in the facts, it’s just difficult to imagine this happening in any sort of modern world. The facts are the facts though, and it happened. Read more about it HERE, director Paul Greengrass (“United 93” and the last two “Bourne” movies) sticking pretty close to the truth.

The adaptation of the facts works so well because Greengrass films in an almost documentary style. We’re not given a bigger picture of what’s going on in the world, of so many behind the scenes issues. This is an American ship being hijacked, its captain being taken prisoner, and the rescue effort to get him back. There is a profundity in its simple, straightforward quality. However or whatever you remember from the 2009 incident, the movie itself is a gem.

Where else to start? Ads and critics alike are pushing Tom Hanks’ performance as his best in years, and it’s hard to disagree. What I came away most impressed with is how easy Hanks makes it look. Playing Capt. Phillips, he is calm, intelligent and always trying to think several steps ahead of him and his captors. Death stares him in the face, and still, he is able to keep eerily calm. He’s trying to save the lives of his men, his own life, at all costs.

What sets Hanks’ performance a step above is the final half hour as the hostage situation comes to its terrifyingly real conclusion. Now, Phillips begins to see that maybe no matter how calm he stays, this could still end with his death. We see some horrifyingly real moments from Hanks, desperation taking over, wonder at what’s happening, and that pure terror that takes over with his own death possibly hanging over him. I don’t know who will get nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, but Hanks certainly deserves to be in the discussion.

 

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The most dynamic thing to come from the movie — a tad long at 134 minutes — is the cat and mouse game that develops between Hanks’ Captain Phillips and Abdi as Muse, the young Somali pirate who leads the hijackers aboard the Maersk, and eventually the ship’s 28-foot lifeboat. Phillips works to get his crew and himself out safely while Muse sees the chance for riches, fame, notoriety, all of them just out of reach. To do so, Muse knows he must keep Phillips alive. Phillips on the other hand, knows this, and is trying to keep his Somali captor searching for what to do. It’s uncomfortably perfect to watch, this dynamic between Hanks and Abdi (in his first feature role). They both try to one-up each other, keep the other off-balance, Muse dubbing Phillips “Irish” while Phillips simply calls him Captain. Who will win out in the end? Hopefully, you know the answer, but getting there can be a lot of fun.

The three other pirates working with Muse are Bilal (Barkhard Abdirahman), the youngest of the four who questions what they’ve gotten themselves into, Najee (Faysal Ahmed), the paranoid, fiery pirate sure that they’re being tricked and Elmi (Mahat M. All), the pirate and boat driver. All four actors are making their acting debuts, all of them delivering impressive performances in their variety. They’re not presented as uniformly evil either, a wise decision I thought in making the hostage situation far more uncomfortable. We see each of them react in different ways to the escalating situation. As for the crew of the Maersk, there’s Michael Chernus as first mate, Shane, with David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson and Chris Mulkey the recognizable faces from the crew. Catherine Keener has a quick part as Phillips’ wife.

While it is a true story, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games” and “Breach”) manage to make a true story play almost like a thriller. Supported by Henry Jackman’s adrenaline-pumping musical score, the story is one tension-packed scene on top of another. We see a foiled attempt to hijack the ship only to see the return of the Somali pirates the next day. On board the Maersk Alabama, it’s a cat and mouse game, only to eventually see Phillips kidnapped and brought aboard the lifeboat. It’s there the story drags a little bit (a little, not a deal breaker by any means), but that tension and energy get ratcheted up in the final half hour.

Even knowing how the real-life incident ended, it’s still unbelievably real to see it happening. The finale is emotionally draining and moving, Hanks really showing off his chops. I very much liked this one, and I loved the last 30-45 minutes. Well worth checking out.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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