Captain Phillips
Tension at Sea

When it comes to creating cinematic tension, there are few directors who do it as well as Paul Greengrass.  After winning critical acclaim for the Irish civil rights drama Bloody Sunday, the director won over both critics and audiences by directing the two superior movies in the Jason Bourne franchise (Supremacy and Ultimatum).  In between, he brought to life the story of the brave passengers on United flight 93 who battled the terrorists on 9/11.  Now, after the tepidly received but entertaining Green Zone, Greengrass is back with another tension-filled drama based on a real-life event.

Captain Phillips is based on the incredible true story of Richard Phillips, the Captain of the MV Maersk Alabama who was held hostage by Somali pirates in 2009 after they hijacked Phillips’ cargo ship.  The movie opens by cross-cutting between Phillips and the pirates as they prepare for, what is for them, a normal day of work.  Shortly after receiving an advisory about possible pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, Phillips notices a couple of blips on the radar.  The blips turn out to be two pirate skiffs making a move on his vessel.

Tom Hanks as Captain PhillipsAfter the pirates manage to work their way onto the ship, Phillips attempts to keep them busy while his crew hides out in the engine room.  After the crew manages to take one of the pirates hostage, they try to negotiate a trade: the hijacker for the Captain.  The crew holds up their end of the bargain, but the pirates manage to take Phillips hostage on the ship’s 28-foot lifeboat.  As the pirates race for safety and what they hope will be a ransom in Somalia, they are pursued by the destroyer USS Bainbridge.  On board the lifeboat, Phillips does whatever he can to help out his rescuers, but the close quarters and sense of desperation only increase the tension among his captors.

The fact that the movie opens by contrasting Phillips getting ready for work with the pirates getting ready to work is interesting, especially in light of a dialogue seen late in the movie.  When Phillips says to the pirate leader that there must be something else he can do, the pirate responds by saying “maybe in America.”  In real life, this pirate was only a teenager and it’s clear that he never really had much of a choice when it came to his profession.  Under the thumb of a local gangster, he must either steal or die.

That’s about all the sympathy the movie musters for its villains, however.  Perhaps the one disappointment I had with this otherwise terrific film is the fact that its four main pirates are a relatively clichéd band of bad guys.  There’s the guy who’s more or less in charge, but doesn’t really have much of plan; there’s the young one who is somewhat sympathetic toward his captive; and then there’s the quiet one who turns out to be the most aggressive of the group.  The last guy? Well, he seems to be there just to drive the boat.

Although the characters they play are more or less clichés, the young, non-professional actors who were cast in the roles are terrific.  They every bit stand their ground, even when sharing the screen with the two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks.  Hanks is again a marvel.  The lovable actor again proves that he can take on any kind of role in any kind of movie.  He most impressed me in the movie’s final moments, which I will not share in case others haven’t heard how the real story turned out.

Captain Phillips starts slow, but quickly develops into an intense drama.  With most of the drama taking place inside the lifeboat, there was a danger of the drama feeling a little too stagy and cramped.  Credit Greengrass and his actors, though, for photographing and editing these sequences so tightly that you never feel like the action gets stale.  The majority of this movie is packed with tension, but it really ratchets up in the final half hour, building toward its dramatic climax.

Captain Phillips is the latest in a number of quality films that have been hitting theaters lately and it is likely not to be easily forgotten.  Look for Tom Hanks, especially, to be mentioned as we continue into awards season.

Captain Phillips is rated PG-13 for “sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.”  There’s one especially bloody scene in the film, but the main reason for the rating is definitely the intensity with which the film tells its story.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Captain Phillips.