Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Wrought with tension and outstanding performances, Captain Phillips tells the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.

“Based on true events” films seem to be Tom Hanks’ forte. He’s the everyman for every situation. What glimpses we have of his home life show that he is an ordinary man, detail-focused, and good at his job. Richard Phillips is the “hostage” who exudes quiet bravery in a terrifying, true and tense situation. I believe in Tom Hanks – and in this film, he is compelling. Hanks is the anchor of our story – the solid presence that guides us through a stressful and hostile situation. Once the hostage situation is underway, Phillips remains composed, pacifying tempers of his assailants and keeping his crew safe.  Much later in the film, the moment that this calm façade cracks, Hanks plays out a rush of emotion that is exhausting and anguished – utterly unrestrained and shockingly real – he gives a truly remarkable performance, memorable, even in his lengthy and honored career.

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Newcomer Barkhad Abdi is superb as Muse, the emergent leader of the small Somali gang of pirates. “I am the Captain now” he says, with wide-eyed desperation, standing toe-to-toe with a seasoned Hollywood veteran like Hanks. Greengrass shows us something of the life that Muse lives, sparse of hope and rife with chaos. We see the clash between the bounty of the Western World (the massive Maersk Alabama) and the forgotten corners of the Third World. The disparity between the haves and the have-nots is startling. The small party of pirates seems piteously unprepared and frighteningly dangerous as the situation escalates. Both Phillips and Muse are out of their depth, grasping at straws to survive. The power play between Hanks and Abdi is thrilling.

Captain Richard Phillips: There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.

Muse: Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America.

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The film doesn’t try to sentimentalize the story, but rather plays out the events with a harrowing focus. We as an audience are in the moment, white-knuckled and restlessly watching the action unfold.

The pacing of this film is devastatingly effective. Paul Greengrass is masterful at creating efficient action scenes and maintaining dizzying momentum. The entire film is painfully tense – using quick and close camera angles and hand-held realism, combined with an effectively anxious musical score by Henry Jackman, to add to the claustrophobia of the situation. From the time the film starts, until it ends – it is a relentless play of stress. The last 15 minutes of this film are absolutely outstanding – where the standoff comes to a frantic and shattering conclusion.

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Captain Phillips is a suspenseful, dynamically directed and magnificently acted film. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Achievement in Sound Editing, Achievement in Film Editing, Achievement in Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay.

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