REVIEW: “Captain Phillips”

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It has been praised by critics as a thrilling movie and berated by former crew members as grossly inaccurate. “Captain Phillips” has hit the theaters and there has been no shortage of fun things to read about it. Prior to seeing it, several things about the movie attracted my interest. First, I was interested in seeing what director Paul Greengrass would bring to the story. He’s a director that I have a love/hate relationship with. Second, this looked like a role that could equal a comeback of sorts for Tom Hanks.

“Captain Phillips” is a biopic taken from the book “A Captain’s Duty”. It follows the story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama which was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. Tom Hanks plays the title character who tries to get himself and his crew to safety after pirates board his container ship while crossing the Indian Ocean. The film doesn’t waste much time in terms of setup. It quickly gets to the meat and potatoes of the story which is the boarding of the Alabama by pirates and the attempted rescue of Captain Phillips and his crew.

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This story seems perfect for the conventional Hollywood big budget treatment. But to my surprise “Captain Phillips” steers clear of those trappings. Billy Ray’s smart and calculated script focuses on what’s important. While Greengrass’ direction ratchets up the intensity and always maintains a sense of urgency, it’s Ray’s writing that keeps us thoroughly invested in Captain Phillips and his plight. There is a time just past the midway point where I felt a sequence was drawing out further than necessary, but as a whole this is real ‘edge of your seat’ stuff.

But make no mistake, Tom Hanks is the real driving force. Hanks was once the king of the Hollywood hill but it could be said that he hasn’t had a great attention-grabbing performance since 2002 and “Road to Perdition”. His work in “Captain Phillips” clearly ends that streak. His performance here is in line with some of the best work of his career. He captures the bravery and heroism of the character while also grounding him by showing the sheer terror he experiences. And his final scene moved me so much and it alone may have cemented this as my favorite performance of the year.

I also have to mention the performance of Barkhad Abdi. This first time Somali-born actor plays Muse, the leader of the Somali hijackers. We first see Muse at his village where he and other fishermen are ordered by soldiers of a local warlord to hijack some passing ships. There is clearly an intent to evoke a thread of sympathy for Muse and his circumstances. Overall it worked dramatically although it was never that convincing. But back to Abdi, it’s clear he’s not a seasoned actor but he’s exactly what his role called for. His demeanor, his expressions, his broken English – it all works to make his character completely convincing. It’s a really good performance.

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There are so many things I enjoyed about this film. Watching Captain Phillips and Muse as they try to read and measure each other is fascinating. The two share so many fantastic scenes. The direction from Paul Greengrass is very effective despite his patented hyperactive camera. He keeps your heart racing and leaves you emotionally spent. The military’s arrival adds a whole new dynamic to the story. It’s exhilarating and never devolves into an action movie cliché. And then of course there is the towering performance from Tom Hanks. He’s back to his finest form and this is clearly Oscar worthy work.

In a movie year filled with mediocrity, it’s great to see a film like “Captain Phillips”. Yes Greengrass makes his usual political points that are too on the nose and the slightly sympathetic portrayal of the pirates does feel a bit contrived. But these things aren’t nearly as blatant or distracting as in some of his past efforts. It’s a smart and effective thriller that keeps itself within reasonable bounds. I don’t know how much truth is in the movie, but I do know it really works on a cinematic level. I also know it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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42 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Captain Phillips”

  1. Loved your review, Keith. I couldn’t agree with you more and I’m relieved we are back in the fall season so more interesting choices are out there for viewing. Did I miss your list of films you are looking forward to? Can’t wait for ‘Knight of Cups’.

  2. I didn’t read past the first paragraph as to avoid any potential spoilers as I plan to see this this weekend, but I saw you gave it a 4.5; I see you gave Gravity a “5” and I plan to see that today. I will have to revisit your reviews after viewing and let you know what I think.

    • Sounds great. Please come back by and tell me what you think. The 2013 movie year really needed these two films. It’s been a really mediocre year so far.

      Gravity was the first 5 star review I gave this year. I did go back and forth between a 4.5 and 5. Ultimately it came down to the breathtaking experience I had on the big screen. Anxious to hear if you felt the same.

      • Okay, I went to see this today, and thought it was pretty good; i don’t think i liked it quite as much as you and Mark Hobin, but I thought it was good. I think the main reason I didn’t feel as strongly about it as you guys was b/c it started to all feel a bit redundant to me about halfway through, and I started to feel like I was just watching another hostage movie that I’ve seen before. I know this is based off a true story, but I’m never sure just how much of the actual facts are scrambled up, so I’ve learned not to put too much emphasis on the truth in a “true” story.

        But the highlight of the film was exactly as you pointed out, watching Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Abdi did a tremendous job leading with his eyes more than a bunch of empty threats, and yelling. Hanks does deserve an Oscar nod, but you know what, I think Abdi’s performance may warrant a supporting nod. 🙂

        Also, on another note pertaining to Hanks, he was excellent in last year’s “Cloud Atlas”.

      • I really didn’t care for “Cloud Atlas”. To be completely honest I found it laborious to sit through. Hanks was okay but he could never rise above the mediocre material. For me it was just a movie that was never as profound as it thought it was. One interesting thing about it, it definitely spawned a wide range of reactions.

      • I loved the Hugo Weaving monologue at the end when threatening his son to stay, and the way the son left anyway in attempt to find the righteous path. That’s what I took away from it, anyway. It’s a movie full of ideals. I think Ben Whishaw is the next big actor. He is just phenomenal.

      • It is full of ideals. I found some of it heavy-handed and some parts just completely out of sync with the others. It’s a very particular film and I can honestly see some loving it and some hating it.

  3. Nice review, Keith. I’m looking forward to this one. I like Greengrass and Hanks is always at his best with gripping and tense material. Have you seen “A Hijacking?” Good flick with a similar story. Once again, good job. Thanks!

  4. Wholeheartedly agree. Just caught the film last night (only released in the UK tomorrow!) and really enjoyed it. I’m a fan of Greengrass. Sure, he does like to go a bit political, but if you can just ignore that a little, it’s fine. I like his direction and he definitely has the ability to ratchet up the tension.

    Tom Hanks was excellent. It feels like it’s been ages since we’ve seen him on the big screen.

  5. Great review! I’ll wait for DVD to see this one, I saw a trailer for it before Gravity and Hanks looks great in it, but I’m not that big of a fan of Greengrass, he is a good director but his films are hit and miss for me.

  6. Awesome review. Though I didn’t see the political subtext all that heavy handed. Sure it’s there, but just the right touch to provide context to the situation while not trying to hammer home a message. Never did I feel Greengrass was forgiving the pirates for their actions by any means, nor was he providing severe reprimanding. It’s a tight rope to walk, and I thought he did it well.

    I was curious to hear your thoughts on our discussion of Captain Phillips. Myself and a few others recently retooled a podcast and I’m always looking to hear what film fans have to say about it. You can check it out here if you have any interest. http://www.geekcastradio.com/featured/mwire-weekly-10142013-captain-phillips

    • Thanks for the great comments. I’ll also definitely check out your link. Obviously by my score I didn’t think that Greengrass was too brutal in his messaging. But I do think it’s there. But it’s certainly done with a lot more thought than something like “The Green Zone”.

      Also, I don’t think he’s forgiving the Pirates for their actions. I just think there is a thread of sympathy that he puts in there. He portrayed them as men forced to do what they’re doing. He also wants to show their circumstances compared to ours in America. There are a few other little touches too but I don’t want to spoil things.

      Most importantly, I think it’s all done well. It didn’t ruin the experience for me at all. Still a great movie.

      • Agreed that it is much better than Green Zone, as the movie felt like more of an excuse to make a political message than an actual movie.

        Yea I agree he’s not forgiving them by any means. More so providing context.

        Again. I did enjoy your insights. Its fun to see different takes away from movies. 🙂

      • Thank you. I love reading your reviews as well. I’ve always found it interesting and fun to see how one single movie could effect or impact so many different people in different ways. That’s one of the things that makes this so much fun.

      • Yes, very true. Makes movie watching even a better experience. I’m curious to hear what you have to say about the podcast, because hearing what other movie fans think is cool to see.

  7. Finally managed to catch this one and it really is a great movie, lots of tense moments and have to agree that the final scene with Hanks is really a powerful performance.

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