October 10, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Captain Phillips”


CAPTAIN PHILLIPS:  Order Tickets Now – Exceptionally Taut, Intelligent Real-Life Thriller

Paul Greenglass is a master of capturing pulse-pounding immediacy on film, and for most directors that would be enough.  Hollywood would be more than happy to back a money truck up to his door and have him churn out nothing but additional Bourne installments and their ilk, and his franchise work has been so high-quality that there’d be nothing about that to be embarrassed about.  Greenglass, though, insists on being a participant in the real world, and aside from the muddle of The Green Zone, he’s created some of the most impressive politically and historically aware thrillers of his generation in Bloody Sunday, United 93 and the new CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

Captain Phillips tells the story of the 2009 incident in which the US merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, captained by Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), was hijacked by Somali pirates.  From the start, Greenglass and screenwriter Billy Ray (working from Phillips’s memoir) establish that notwithstanding the title of the movie and the presence of Tom Hanks, the film will focus as well on the pirates, who are driven by local warlords to attack the ships; it’s clear that even when the pirates raise millions in ransom, all of that money is delivered to the warlords, and they themselves live in abject poverty.  Phillips’s opposite number, as it were, is Muse (extraordinary first-time actor Barkhad Abdi), who announces himself as the new “Captain” after they’ve taken possession of the Alabama.

The early section of Captain Phillips sets out the fascinating process by which a tiny skiff with four bandits can take over a giant merchant ship.  None of the 20 sailors on board the Alabama were armed, and there were no guards, so essentially, once the pirates were able to board the ship, it was theirs–and although Phillips takes the boat through all the defensive measures available, just one mistake and these comparative ants are able to take control of the elephant.  After that, the story turns into a cat and mouse game, as Phillips tries to keep his crew hidden from the pirates, using the advantage of their greater knowledge of the ship’s interior.  Ultimately, Phillips ends up taken captive by the attackers in the modern version of a lifeboat, a closed, motored vessel with limited visibility and range.

From the tremendous scale of the opening sequences, Captain Phillips becomes reduced to events in a speck on the ocean, with what becomes a towering flotilla of US Navy ships surrounding it.  As Phillips desperately tries to do anything to increase his chances of surviving, he knows the Navy won’t pay the ransom the pirates are demanding and that eventually the SEALs will attack, one way or another.  Phillips wants the hijackers to lose, but placed in proximity to them, he can’t help but see that they’re human beings too.  It’s not that he develops Stockholm Syndrome or becomes sympathetic to their aims, but he feels for their real pain.  In a movie industry that builds its action movies around depersonalized villains (often literally inhuman), this kind of wider sense of the world is extraordinary.

Innumerable action movie directors use hand-held shaky camerawork and quick cutting to force a sense of excitement into their product, but they nearly always lose spatial clarity and visual coherence in the process.  Greenglass, working with his usual team of cinematographer Barry Aykroyd and editor Christopher Rouse, demonstrates how it’s supposed to be done.  Even though he’s working with mere fragments of film, we always know where each of the key figures in the story are, and where they’re placed in relation to each other–a crucial point because movement of just a few inches will be the difference between their life and death.  When violence occurs, it’s brutally quick and final, and it has real impact.

Tom Hanks has been such a reliably good, steadfast actor for so long–our modern James Stewart and Henry Fonda, the quintessential ordinary American–that it’s easy to take him for granted, and indeed, sometimes he falls back on familiar mannerisms (as in the weak Larry Crowne, which he wrote and directed for himself).  He’s operating on all cylinders here, though, using the bond he has with audiences to take us along with Phillips’s every flicker of thought.  And in the last reel of Captain Phillips, Hanks does perhaps the rawest, most impassioned acting of his life, his emotions scorched and primal, changing by the second, and it’s a shock–not because we didn’t respect Hanks before, but even after three decades of stardom, we didn’t know he had that in him.   Since Abdi hasn’t acted before, it’s hard to tell whether what we’re watching is a skilled performance or a triumph of casting, but he goes toe-to-toe with Hanks and proves a worthy counterpart on every level.

Apart from its photography and editing, Captain Phillips is beautifully put together in every other technical respect, with special attention due to the restrained score by Henry Jackman, and production design by Paul Kirby that provides a completely convincing simulation of real life.  More than the physical prowess of Greenglass and his team, though, his and Ray’s accomplishment is that they never lose sight of the bigger picture around their canvas.  The pirates are controlled by the warlords, and looming behind Phillips is the US government and military.  Both men, in a sense, are tiny figures on a skiff that travels in a massive ocean.  It’s rare that a film delivers popcorn-movie suspense along with a thoughtful view of the world, but that’s Paul Greenglass’s specialty.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."