Captain Phillips Review

Captain Phillips is a white-knuckled thriller from the director of the Bourne sequels and offers one of Tom Hanks' best performances.

Paul Greengrass, director of Captain Phillips, has become the cinematic chronicler of our time. He’s the keeper of the flame for the first draft of Western History, at least as viewed through a digital projector. And unlike certain other filmmakers who have attempted snapshots of the American Experience in the 21st century, this English auteur’s films have thus far wholly and reassuringly entered the popular culture via the higher ideals we imagine for ourselves in a collective subconscious. As such, the filmmaker who exorcised imaginary demons in the Bourne films and the truly haunting specters of 9/11 with United 93 has returned to his subject of choice with another true story that is likely to inspire as much as it terrifies. Perhaps though, the preeminent aspect for this adaptation of Captain Richard Phillips’ memoir, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, remains its casting of America’s moral big screen compass, Mr. Tom Hanks; for all the derring-do and white-knuckled thrills to be found inherent in this picture, none will surpass this astonishingly raw performance from the versatile movie star, who delivers one of the best turns in his career.
 In a series of events that even passing followers of the news should recall, Captain Richard Phillips was commanding the Merchant Vessel Maersk Alabama when Somali pirates hijacked the ship in April 2009. The event constituted the first successful seizure of a vessel under an American flag since the 19th century and created an international incident when the four Somali pirates took Captain Phillips as their hostage. In the fallout, the U.S. Navy negotiated for several days for Phillips’ release prior to U.S. Navy SEALs shooting three of the pirates dead; the fourth hijacker, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was aboard the USS Bainbridge and arrested after the rescue of Phillips. If you consider this a spoiler, please open a newspaper (or download its App). What the above paragraph fails to convey is the sheer horror and madness of those tumultuous days on the sea when the Maersk Alabama was delayed in reaching the port of Mombasa. At least in capturing that emotion of pure existential chaos, and the harrowing clash of cultures, Greengrass has achieved one of the most suspenseful movies to be released this year with a pace that will have you on the edge of your seat for at least 120 of its 134-minute running time. To be fair, the film, for which Sony Pictures purchased the rights of in 2009, does fall into a certain level of expected Hollywood cliché. The first ten minutes so heavy-handedly set up the conflict with exposition-laden sequences, including Richard Phillips (Hanks) dropping his life story to wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) during a car ride for her sole screentime, that one ponders if this was penned by the same Billy Ray who scripted State of Play. However, the contrivances are fleeting and non-existent as the film enters the meat of its narrative by the 15-minute mark. Much of the sentimentality many might expect from a biopic is sidestepped for an experience which generates a visceral sense of immediacy through the unending urgency of now. I have mixed feelings about shaky cam, particularly in Greengrass’ reliably erratic grip. While I’ve enjoyed all of his pictures since Bloody Sunday (2002), half of the action sequences in the Bourne sequels seem barely kinetic when it feels like I’m a bouncing camcorder in the passenger seat next to Matt Damon. But in a drama where the set pieces are not meant to induce smiles, Greengrass’ intimate close-ups and eagle eye feels like being placed in a fish bowl with his characters. Even during sweeping helicopter shots, the film never senses of anything less than reality in motion as viewers are placed on the bridge with Phillips when the pirates’ skiffs emerge from the horizon.