In 2009, off the coast of Somalia, the MV Maersk Alabama became the first American ship boarded by pirates in over 200 years. After an unsuccessful hijacking attempt, the pirates escaped on the ship’s self-contained lifeboat with Captain Richard Phillips, who they then attempted to ransom off to the U.S. Navy.
If you’re familiar with director Paul Greengrass’s other films of the past decade – United 93, the final two Bourne movies starring Matt Damon, and the underrated Green Zone – you should know some of what to expect from Captain Phillips. The action plays out moment-to-moment in intensely kinetic sequences where the camera frenzies over the scene and makes you feel like a silent, if dizzy, fly on the wall. It’s surprisingly effective when the hijackers chase and board the ship, but the real strength of feeling like we’re right there in the room comes when things are relatively calm. We’re allowed to spy on characters taking stock of their situation.
Early on, when Phillips (Tom Hanks) arrives at the port from which the Alabama is departing, we’re shown thousands upon thousands of shipping containers being moved from dock to dock. For most directors, this would warrant an establishing shot showing the impressive scale of the dock before quickly settling in on Hanks. For Greengrass, it’s an opportunity to show both how intimidating the port is and how functional Phillips is within it. He energetically films the controlled chaos of the port and plays up its belittling size, but he also finds the rusted, used, scraped bits and makes sure we see these, too. It all reflects Phillips himself, a very intelligent, competent captain with a brash, nose-to-the-grindstone personality.
First-time actor Barkhad Abdi plays Muse, the captain of Phillips’s captors, and his Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor was spot on. First of all, he holds the movie just as much as Hanks does. Secondly, when watching a movie like this, it’s very easy to adopt a mentality of us vs. them and ignore that Muse becomes a pirate because he can’t be a fisherman – developed countries have fished his ocean clean. Muse captures ships under the threat of execution if he refuses. Even when his bosses make $6 million from a ransom, Muse sees none of it and remains living in squalor. It’s easy to see Hanks as a likeable actor playing a workaday hero. Unfortunately, it’s even easier to see someone speaking a different language playing a villain and react in terror. The Oscar nomination goes far in reminding us that those villains are played by actors just as likeable as Hanks.
Another nice touch is the treatment of the Navy SEAL team. There’s no trumped-up Hollywood resentment between Captain Frank Castellano, whose U.S.S. Bainbridge was the first to reach the lifeboat, and the leader of the SEAL team who later takes command of the situation. Castellano does his job to the best of his ability and then moves into a support role. There’s no arguing about the best course of action as in a Name-Your-Tom-Clancy film – people just do their jobs.
One of the best shots of the film occurs directly after the mission is completed. Their rifles packed up, the SEAL team simply leaves the deck. There is no one-liner or self-congratulation after shooting someone, whether deserved or not. They do what anyone does after a difficult job: they go home. That realism and accessibility makes them feel more heroic than any amount of patriotic fist-pumping could achieve.
When Captain Phillips arrived in theaters, it was a week after Gravity had fused groundbreaking camera techniques with incredible special effects, acting rehearsed at obsessive-compulsive levels, and swelling, orchestral music. It was an unreal experience polished to perfection. Captain Phillips shows us what can be done with quick edits, real sets, and improvised acting. This is the best performance Hanks has given in years, maybe in his career. There is zero separation between character and actor, and the final scene is the most raw, honest performance I’ve seen on film in a long, long time. Both films show that two artists can create the same feeling using completely different techniques, but also that two great artists can create a thousand different feelings using only one.
Captain Phillips is rated PG-13 for its intensity, some violence, and for substance use.