There are some moviegoing experiences that make it difficult to come out of the theater with a sense of satisfaction, regardless of the film’s quality. In these instances, the film’s director has usually made a movie that feels so unsettling and visceral that you are left haunted by it hours after the experience. Paul Greengrass is a director that specializes in putting the audience right in the heart of the action, with the general desire to make the audience feel like they’ve experienced something as it really happened. Greengrass’ Academy Award-nominated work in United 93 is a prime example of placing the audience in a dangerous, thrilling situation, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Just as United 93 put us on a plane full of horrified people headed toward Washington, D.C. on 9/11, Captain Phillips places us on a 2009 ship off the coast of Somalia that just so happens to be taken hostage by pirates.
Captain Phillips is Greengrass’ latest dramatization of a real-life, headline-making event. As the film begins, we are introduced to the titular Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) saying goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener) and leaving the United States to embark on a humanitarian mission. Phillips is tasked with leading the cargo ship Maersk Alabama through the Gulf of Aden to Africa. The journey is quite literally smooth sailing through the beginning of their voyage as we are introduced to the ship’s crew. These men don’t have particularly distinct personalities in the Screenwriting 101 sense; they are all just men doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. We also discover that Captain Phillips can be somewhat of a hard-ass when it comes to getting the job done, but he also commands respect and loyalty as a leader.
Everything goes smoothly until there is a moment of slight doubt. Phillips orders the men to take precautions in protecting themselves against a pirate attack. We are introduced to a new crew of shipmates. This one is a troupe of Somalian pirates with nothing on their minds but the possible riches that can be taken from that one cargo ship in the distance. Led by the scrappy, unpredictable Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirates manage to outwit the crew of the Maersk Alabama and take control of the ship with loaded guns and threats.
The level of tension that rises from the first suggestion that something may be wrong up to the Somalian pirates taking the crew hostage is a remarkable feat. Muse is such an unpredictable character with seemingly changing motivations that it is a genuine mystery, both to the crew and to the audience, what he will do next. Meanwhile, Phillips tries to patiently calm Muse down with the ease of someone who has been in this sort of situation before. He represents what any of us would do in this scenario, trying to calm down the antagonizer in order to feel safe again. The problem is that Muse’s bravado becomes so large as he watches the crew cower in fear of him that it only makes him more willing to take them down.
What makes the storytelling so great between these characters is the gradual changes in their behavior and motivations. While Muse gradually finds himself possessing more and more power as the film goes on, Phillips is forced to let go of any power he once had. Phillips considers himself a caring, selfless man, mentioning early on that he and the crew were shipping in supplies for needy African children. However, as his safety starts to become uncertain, he tries to do whatever he can to protect himself. In a way, he becomes more like the pirates who are just trying to get by and survive in a harsh environment. Hanks gives a particularly strong performance as Phillips, one that I wasn’t sure he was still capable of. The 57-year-old actor still has an everyman quality about him that makes him so easy to relate to, giving the severity of his character’s situation even more gravitas.
Greengrass gives the film a claustrophobic feeling, especially when the characters are secluded to one area. There is a level of terror that comes from not feeling like you can escape, and Greengrass doesn’t allow the audience to breathe a sigh of relief for what seems like the entire running time of the film. Ultimately, the film is about having what it takes to survive and adapt to one’s surroundings without compromising yourself in the process. Though Captain Phillips is a brutal experience to go through, it confidently portrays the primal instincts necessary to survive in an ugly yet natural world.
MVP: Tom Hanks
Best Director: Paul Greengrass
Best Lead Actor: Tom Hanks
Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Photo: Columbia Pictures