Captain Phillips (United States, 2013)

October 08, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Captain Phillips Poster

Movies like Captain Phillips - taut, white-knuckle thrillers that feature ordinary guys instead of bona fide action heroes - are something of an endangered species. In today's risk-averse movie industry, making an "action" film without an established heroic type is a risky proposition. And, while Tom Hanks is a marketable name, no one is going to confuse him with Dwayne Johnson or Vin Diesel. In fact, Captain Phillips works precisely because Hanks isn't a muscle-bound, gun-toting figure (nor does he turn into one during the course of the movie). Placed in an untenable position, he uses guile and intelligence instead of brawn and weapons to enhance his survival chances. The result is an intense experience that will leave many viewers exhausted by the time the 2 1/4-hour running time expires.

If there's a knock against director Paul Greengrass, it's that he's overly fond of shaky handheld shots. He also loves close-ups. There's nothing in Captain Phillips to challenge the overindulgence of The Bourne Supremacy, so at least Greengrass has chosen to rein in things a little. Still, there are instances, especially early in the proceedings, when the camera's lack of stability is noticeable. Those with a sensitivity to such things are advised to sit toward the back of the theater. By about the 30-minute mark, however, I no longer noticed this - either I had gotten used to it or the on-screen action was so intense that I forgot about it.

Billy Ray's screenplay is based on a factual book written by Captain Richard Phillips (co-authored by Stephan Talty) called A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. It tells of events in April 2009 when Phillips (Tom Hanks), commanding the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, helped defend his ship against Somali Pirates. Eventually, four armed men boarded the ship and Phillips was able to keep them off-guard. He was taken prisoner aboard a life raft and became a pawn in game of brinksmanship between the pirates and the United States Navy. Despite some condensations and other changes necessary to make the story fit into a movie of reasonable length, Captain Phillips is true to the events related in the book. The veracity of the film is unsurprising: Greengrass was similarly rigorous in his treatment of 9/11 in United 93.

With Cast Away, Tom Hanks proved that he can be trusted to front a film in which his character is placed in constant, evolving jeopardy. In a way, Captain Phillips is a close cousin. Hanks is an everyman. He's excellent at representing how a normal person might react in this situation: by seeking to avoid a confrontation and, when that proves impossible, to achieve victory by outthinking his opponents rather than blowing them up. We can relate to Rich Phillips, which is more than can be said of most movie characters in similar situations. Hanks is often pigeonholed as a lightweight actor, but there's nothing lightweight about this role or this performance.

For the most part, everyone not named "Hanks" is either a character actor or an unknown. The four men playing the pirates - Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali - are making their feature debuts, but there's no lack of experience evident. Their portrayals are spot-on and credible. The bickering between them is believable as is the element of desperation in their actions. The refrain of the leader, "Everything's gonna be all right," metamorphoses from words of reassurance to an ominous lie as events unfold.

Captain Phillips will leave the average viewer drained. After a brief 15-minute setup, there's little down time for the rest of the film. It's divided into two roughly equal segments. The first details the cat-and-mouse game between Phillips and his crew and the pirates. The second is a hostage drama in which the captive bears witness to quarrels among his captors as his life hangs in the balance. With its focus on Navy ops and SEAL involvement, there's a little flavor of Zero Dark Thirty in this portion of the tale. Although it's too early to say whether Captain Phillips will be a player in the end-of-the-year Oscar race, there's little doubt in my mind that this will feature prominently on a list of 2013's most uncompromising thrillers. Hanks represents our portal into a tempestuous sea.

Captain Phillips (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: 2013-10-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1