Review: Captain Phillips

Posted by Matthew on October 28, 2013
Movies, Reviews

Captain Phillips

You’re probably aware that I really love going to the movies. It seems self evident just based on how much I go to the movies, really. One of the great pleasures of movie going for me is those times when I get to sit down and watch one of the great actors of our time work their magic. This is the experience you will have with Captain Phillips.

Captain Phillips tells the story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama along the Somali Coast. If you ever pay attention to the news then you know how this played out. Pirates boarded the ship with the hope of holding it for ransom and when that didn’t work out as planned they took Captain Phillips hostage on a life boat. Eventually the Navy arrives and the situation is resolved pretty much exactly as you’d expect. I won’t spoil it here, but again if you saw the news in 2009 you should know what happens.

It’s a pretty straightforward story. You’d think that knowing how it ends would be a bad thing and you’d be wrong. Tom Hanks is one of the great actors of our time and this story of a man trapped in a confined space with hostile men who mean to do him harm is a pretty brilliant showcase for that fact. Remember how Hanks won back to back Oscars? I will be surprised if he’s not nominated again this year.

One great actor is one thing, but two is another. Despite the title Captain Phillips is the story of two men: the titular captain and the man who takes him hostage. Barkhad Abdi is a newcomer, Captain Phillips is his debut film role, and he doesn’t just do well, his performance is stunning. As the pirate Muse he goes toe to toe with Hanks and doesn’t blink and it’s a pleasure to watch. Most of the films message dialogue also comes from him and while that can come off preachy (as it has in other Paul Greengrass films) here it doesn’t and that’s a feat in and of itself.

Billy Ray’s script juxtaposes these two men fairly well. In Phillips first scenes he is getting ready to leave his home, driving with his wife and talking about how hard it’s going to be for his kids to get ahead if they don’t do well in college. In Muse’s first scene he is woken up from sleeping on the dirt floor of his shack and conscripted into acting as a pirate for a local warlord.

Paul Greengrass is somewhat notorious for popularizing the “shaky cam” shooting style that has gone on to be used to dubious effect in almost every action movie lately. I don’t hate the effect like some do and when it’s done right it really does lend an air of immediacy to a film. Rest assured that this is a film where it’s done right. In fact given that most of the film takes place at sea it kind of feels like the most natural choice. The man also has a habit of taking on films with a message about how the rest of the world lives and this is no exception but unlike efforts such as Green Zone (2010) it’s so in your face as to drag down the movie.

Despite knowing how the situation will end Captain Phillips had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. If that’s not a sign of a well put together film then I don’t know what is. Factor in two great actors and a director working at his best and you end up with one of the best films of the year.

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