Captain Phillips wasn’t really on my radar for the year. I like Paul Grenngrass and I love Tom Hanks, but I really wasn’t excited for the film in the same way I am for others. I expected something competent and modest: a serviceable dramatization of the 2009 Somali pirate hijacking of an American ship and the subsequent kidnapping of its captain, Richard Phillips (Hanks).
Early on in Captain Phillips, I thought my expectations were going to be proven right. It begins a bit clunky, a bit too expository. So many pieces are being put in place rather than moved, and there’s a not-too-successful attempt at thematic parallelism when it comes to the lives of Captain Phillips and Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, the leader of the pirates played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi.
But then Captain Phillips gets going, and when it gets going, it’s relentless.
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2013 New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Director: Paul Greengrass
Release Date: October 11th, 2013
In a way, that clunky beginning is both necessary and unnecessary. It reveals the absolute stillness of Captain Phillips’ home life as a kind of counterpoint to the madness that’s ahead. There’s also something human and tangible to tether on to that lends so much emotional weight as the tension ratchets up. And yet the exchange between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) feels off. They’re talking about an uncertain economic future and what the kids will do, and they speak in a manner that feels more like a discussion of themes and ideas than something true to life. It’s followed by a brief sense of the plight of the Somalis, and there’s just something a little too pat about the implicit comparison.
The set up for the situation takes up about 20 minutes of screen time, and includes a brief introduction to some key crew members and the route that the cargo ship will travel. It’s all forgivable since so much of the other stuff in Captain Phillips works so well. The hijacking sequence seems to last ages, which isn’t a criticism but a testament to how nerve-racking and well-crafted it is. I lost sense of time because I was so involved with the events on screen.
We see the the cargo ship and behind it are two speed boats in hot pursuit. We get views from the bridge and the engine room where Captain Phillips and his crew are trying to evade the oncoming assault. There are procedures to follow, and nothing goes quite right. Then we see the view from the ocean alongside the pirates, and it’s all roil and churn and spume as the speed boats close in. Well-placed aerial shots and glimpses of the ship radar are intercut in order to add to the suspense. Much of the action was shot on the high seas rather than cheated on green screen, and if there is CG, it’s subtle. This is expert filmmaking for an action thriller, and Greengrass is in top form.
The intensity of the hijacking sequence increases once the pirates board the ship. Phillips remains on the bridge to negotiate while the rest of the crew remains hidden away. Muse demands that there be no games and no tricks, but what follows is a series of ruses simply for survival. It’s so cleverly done, with narrow escapes and small acts of heroism. This carries on into the final section of the film, which comes after a bit of a breather. The last third of the movie expands the scope of the story without losing too much focus on the intimate desperation of Phillips and Muse. The navy and other forces may get involved, but this is really about two men, both captains. While the sociopolitical parallelism feels too simplistic, the plot-driven and character-driven parallelism between Phillips and Abdi is generally solid.
What makes so much of the action in Captain Phillips work is so simple and yet lacking in many action films today. It isn’t just the realism of the action and it’s not Henry Jackman’s score, which sounds like Hans Zimmer at his most Hans Zimmeriest. Instead it’s how Greengrass takes time to establish spatial relationships between characters and objects. When the pirates leave the bridge to search the ship, I knew exactly where they were in relation to other parts of the ship where the various crew members were hiding. This basic knowledge of where things are lends every sequence an added sense of dread or anticipation. Will the pirate learn what I know, or will the crewman remain hidden and safe?
The same concern for basic character spatial relationships holds true for establishing the importance of distances. There’s more to it than the pirate skiffs approaching fast via radar and helicopter shot. In a sequence toward the end of Captain Phillips, the length of a towline means all the difference between success and failure in a last ditch rescue attempt. An aerial shot runs the length of the line, and somehow it’s just as suspenseful as various moments in the initial hijacking, like a long draw of a bow across a violin string.
Hanks has always been a fine actor, even going back to the wacky days of the early 80s, and its his humanity that helps bring an emotional core to Captain Phillips. What’s fascinating about his performance when compared to Abdi’s as Muse is the way they both deal with their roles as leader. For Phillips, he’s always doing his best to maintain composure and an air of calm, whether it’s to put his men at ease during a crisis or to appease the pirates and spare innocent lives. The cracks in the demeanor are readily apparent, though, from the curt concern he has when addressing his crew to those little nervous gestures — a scratch of the ear, the unnecessary fussing at his glasses, the body language all full of knots. Abdi, by contrast, is driven by desperation in search of composure. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but feels that this is all that can be done.
I became interested in seeing how the personalities of Phillips and Abdi hold up under this sort of strain. Phillips fares better at faking it, but maybe that’s only because he’s a professional sailor who’s had years to figure out how. Abdi not so much, but his situation forces him into projecting strength and authority. One of the most fascinating things about Hanks’ performance is trying to spot those breaks in composure as the situation becomes more dire. With Abdi, it’s about spotting those moments of certainty and calm once the tumult subsides.
This might be why I’m of two minds about that clunky beginning. Looking back at it, Phillips was nervous all along about the trip, even with his wife, even when making small talk on the drive to the airport, and it’s important to have the calm agitation at the beginning given where Hanks goes to at the end. It’s as if these emotional spaces were being set up in order to be navigated over the course of the narrative. We arrive at a particular moment in Hank’s performance that everyone will be talking about, and it’s a scene so spontaneous and so vulnerable that it’s hard not to be moved by it. Greengrass and his crew have not just made one of the best thrillers of 2013, they’ve made one of the most emotionally exhausting movies of the year as well.