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 Bournefilms 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 Bournesequels 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.
Most satisfyingly, the unapologetically direct approach to the cinematography coalesces with the tight editing into a narrative that constantly feels like it’s in a state of climax. Whether it’s Phillips scaring the pirates off with a bluff that falls flat on the second day or the hijackers successfully boarding the cargo ship when one of the defense hoses malfunctions, the audience is perpetually unnerved by the tension underlined in audible red by Henry Jackman’s score. When the crew in the engineering room manages to fight the pirates off the ship—but cannot stop them from kidnapping their captain—a rush akin to mise-en-scène PTSD might set in, and we haven’t even reached the most adrenaline-soaked portion of the story. At the center of it all is Hanks’ steadfastly amazing performance. In Hanks’ guise, Phillips is an everyday workingman with that thick New England accent he coined back in Catch Me If You Can. However, these flourishes that become familiar with all our movie stars, are few and far between in a role that is seven hellacious layers of cultivated anxiety and determination. It slowly becomes evident this is a tour de force for the actor, as he in equal breaths must display genuine fear for his own life while also painting on the falsely compliant smile of “Irish” (the nickname he is given by his captors) when he leads them on a wild goose chase looking for his crew. It is in the movie’s closing hour, once it zooms in on the delicate moments of relief, joy, and ultimately dread that Phillips must covet in private on an overheated lifeboat shared by four Somalis, that the true centerpiece of the film emerges. Captain Phillipscontends to be a battle of wills between its titular hostage and the lead antagonist, Muse (Barkhad Abi). The first-time actor, who was born in Yemen, proves more than capable of finding the right balance of menace, compassion and intelligence. The movie seems to purport that in different circumstances than those of the war-torn Somalia, the starved and uneducated Muse could have pursued far greater opportunities given his natural cunning and ambition; though his reach clearly exceeds his grasp here. Unfortunately, unlike the far more controversial but demanding Zero Dark Thirty of last year, any cultural questions or moral ambiguities are papered over in the screenplay, which must repeatedly remind the viewer that “he is no fisherman.” Indeed, the only brief moment of weakness in the film’s third act comes when it lightly bumps into the glacial elephant on the boat: Western and African relations. For a movie that is primarily a thriller, to the point where all characters not named Phillips or Muse are functional and little else, these broader questions feel awkward and misplaced. Despite being at the center of a political nightmare, this is not a political film, no matter the intents of a few throwaway lines. Concordantly, the film condenses the events of the hijacking into a seeming 48-hour period when it was closer to five days. Never doubt that this is a Hollywood interpretation of the events meant to thrill and twist an audience into its spiraling rollercoaster. And it does just that with far more intimidation than any summer action movie or autumn horror released this year. It will pull you in and leave you fatigued by its end credits due to a startling amount of authenticity beholden to the filmmakers’ vision, if not the minute details. Further, Hanks’ final scene—which in the Q&A session after my screening, the actor admitted was practically improvised on the spot from an intuition he and his director shared—will linger long past Captain Phillips’ opening weekend and well through awards season. Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars