Thursday, October 17, 2013

Captain Phillips review

"Captain Phillips" is a taut, consistently intense thriller, expertly filmed and crafted by director Paul Greengrass. Greengrass is best known for the "Bourne" sequels as well as "United 93" and while making those films, created a new way of filming action thrillers. Lots of hand-held work, quick cuts, purposeful confusion, and just all around chaos. "Captain Phillips" finds Greengrass's style at its most controlled. The camerawork is always purposeful, and it really gives off a "you are there" type feel without the threat of making you feel nauseous.

Topping off excellent filmmaking and a tightly wound plot, with what might be Tom Hanks's greatest performance and you have a highly exhilarating thrill ride. Obviously, I must choose my words carefully here as the film is based on a true story and of which there are a lot of real world implications. Still, watching Hanks as Captain Phillips really reminds you why he has been such a popular actor for so long. It's not just the charisma and the all-American quality that he brings, in Captain Phillips in particular, Tom Hanks has always carried an utter commitment to his roles and, we forget, he can really carry a thriller like nobody's business. He's not the biggest badass in the world, far from it, but he's unbelievably convincing when the stakes are high. Watching him in the last 20 minutes kinda left me speechless. I never saw him play a character that looked so damn lost and in such complete shock. And this is the same guy who played a man dying of AIDS and another man stranded on an island. Here, when the military rescues him and they question him, the utter shock on his face really threw me. He was very solid all throughout the film, but at that moment, he showed me why he's one of our greatest actors.

The film's actual plot is simple enough, though it unfolds in a complex manner. Captain Phillips heads a container ship that's meant to sail the Indian Ocean, going around Somalia. The area around Somalia is notorious for its abundance of pirates and pretty soon Captain Phillips will see that first-hand. I have read articles that claim Phillips is not portrayed accurately in the film, that he's not exactly the kind of hero that the film depicts him as. For me, though, I didn't really see him as a hero. I saw him as a complex, difficult, and perhaps, stubborn man whose actions wound up getting him into more trouble than he had anticipated. The struggle he winds up going through with these pirates is absolutely chilling and you can really feel the intensity between the pirates and the ship's crew. I don't think the film goes out of its way to show Phillips's heroic qualities, even though I can see how the actual crew members of the ship could feel otherwise.

When the pirates wind up on the Captain's ship, Phillips does his best to calm them down. He's already made sure almost all his crew is hiding in the engine room. And his goal is to make sure the pirates can't find them.  He ultimately fails to successfully bargain with them and they drag him into the the ship's lifeboat where they will hold him for ransom. This is a plan the Somalian pirates have not necessarily thought out clearly enough, but when Phillips tries to reason with them, they simply won't listen.

There are a few choices Greengrass makes in the film that I found a little befuddling, and I'll get to that later, but one big thing that is worth commending is watching the back and forth between the action that takes place in the lifeboat, while at the same time, seeing how the military goes through their preparations in taking down these pirates. It's really fascinating stuff and so well done, that I don't even care if it's fully accurate. I love the way this military procedural is filmed with the same intensity as Captain Phillips's kidnapping.

What winds up being a bit confusing, in the end, is the choice to attempt to humanize and/or understand things from the Somalian's point-of-view. We're given a taste of what these pirates are like before they get on a boat and track down this giant ship and... it isn't much to go by. Yes, they have a leader and they're following orders, but once they get on the container ship, something just doesn't feel right. Obviously, Greengrass may have felt an obligation to at least try to see things from their point-of-view, but the dialogue between them and Captain Phillips just makes them sound like thugs. There's no consistency here. If you're going to give some background on these characters, it would seem important to follow through on this and help us to understand them better. Instead, they quickly become "evil, heartless, violent pirates." Of course, to Captain Phillips, they may have very well come off as evil and heartless. It just seems like an odd choice to even attempt to see things from their view when, ultimately, this is Captain Phillips's film. Ultimately, we rejoice at his rescue. If the pirates had been characterized better throughout, perhaps their demise would have been met with some consternation. This is the one aspect of the film that felt a little too clumsy.

And ultimately, there does seem to be a case of confusion on what the film wants to be. Is it a straight-up tense action/thriller? For the most part, that's what it appears like, and when viewed in that lens, it's nearly flawless. But, the film occasionally falters when it attempts to understand and dissect US-Somalia relations. Some of the interactions between Phillips and the pirates' gang leader read a little false to me and, overall, there just seems to be some confusion as to how to handle these characters. It's like the filmmakers did not want to straight up depict them as "bad guys," but ultimately, that's pretty much how they're depicted.

That said, Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirate leader Muse, deserves a lot of praise for how well he handled his character. His portrayal of Muse is incredibly chilling and, I imagine, a hard role to pull off. He managed to go toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks pretty effortlessly and was a very convincing foil. His naivete was interesting, and again, I wish it was explored a little better. But he definitely handled his role with an abundance of confidence. I would not be surprised if he wound up being nominated for an Oscar.

Incredibly successful when it's 100% in action/thriller mode, but a little murky when it attempts to go beyond its genre constraints. Captain Phillips, all-in-all, is absolutely a must-see film and is deftly handled by director Paul Greengrass.

Grade: B+

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