Captain Phillips – A Review

Last week I was lucky enough to see a screening of Tom Hanks’ new film, Captain Phillips. This was fortunate for two reasons: 1) going to the movies for free and a week before it comes out are always good and 2) it’s probably the only way I would have seen Captain Phillips. Though I like Hanks, the trailers for Captain Phillips didn’t really appeal to me. It looked like the kind of movie that you should see, but not necessarily the kind that you want to see. I call these homework movies; you go to see them because you want to be a serious movie goer, but you don’t have a whole lot of fun while watching them. The whole thing just feels like work.

I also haven’t been a fan of some of Hanks’ more recent films; you all know what a steaming pile of poo that I thought Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was and Larry Crowne seemed like a misstep. I refuse to accept him as Robert Langdon in the Angels &Demons/The Da Vinci Code films and Charlie Wilson’s War was pretty meh. Really, the most recent thing that I have really dug him on was his various talk show appearances. He’s always great on those and even made my dream list of guests. He is regarded as one of the nicest men in show business, but while I adore him personally his career has taken him in directions that I am less enamored with.  He is a tremendous actor and has the hardware to prove it, but he and I haven’t been seeing eye to eye creatively for some time. So I was pretty indifferent to Captain Phillips going into the screening.

Turns out, Captain Phillips is a pretty great film; I really got into it and Hanks is absolutely fantastic. The script and the fine acting on all fronts drew me completely into the story. The film is thrilling, tense and puts you on the edge of your seat. In a lot of ways, the film reminds me of Zero Dark Thirty; not only because both films feature the heroic actions of the Navy SEALS but because in both films I knew the ultimate outcome but was still riveted to the screen.  Captain Phillips is very successful in building tension and anxiety. There are a lot of cat and mouse aspects to the story that serve to ratchet up the stress levels. Some of the scenes in this film caused me more anxiety than most of the horror films that I’ve seen in the last year. That is some good filmmaking.

Captain Phillips is based on the real life incident that occurred in 2009: four Somalia pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. container ship. Hanks stars as Phillips, the captain of the ship during the assault, who must deal with the pirates and try to keep his crew and cargo safe. The container ship contains no weapons while the pirates were toting AK-47s, so Phillips must use his interpersonal skills and the home field advantage of knowing the ship. The film is really set up to tell the tale of two captains: Phillips and Muse (Barkhad Abidi), the leader of the pirates who takes control of the ship. Their power struggle is at the heart of the movie.

Hanks really gives a tour de force performance as Phillips; for me, this was a return to form for the actor. He brings his average guy likability to the table, but also can be tough and handle the physicality required for the role. There is a scene in the film where Hanks brought me to tears, as this tough and calm man finally breaks under the pressure and strain of what he endures. The moment is handled so subtlety and so beautifully and feels 100% earned. That’s what Hanks brings to the table and this is the best he’s been in years. He doesn’t act in a vacuum, however, and I have to commend the actors that play the pirates as well.  They do a fantastic job and really bring those characters to life and give them some personality and realness. It would be easy for these characters to be cardboard villains, but the movie treats them with respect and actually makes you feel a little sorry for them and their struggles. You can condone their actions while still understanding the desperation and circumstances that drove them to commit these crimes. It isn’t a large chunk of the movie, but I appreciated that the filmmakers chose to tell a well-rounded story.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • Wired has an interesting article from 2012 on the real life Captain Phillips incident if you want some background. The outcome is given away in the title, however, so if you want to go into the movie clean, don’t click on the link until after you’ve seen the film.
  • The Navy SEALS involved in this hijacking were members of SEAL Team Six, who would go on to kill Osama bin Laden. These guys are overachievers.
  • Catherine Keener has a small role as Phillips’ wife.
  • I was impressed with the techniques that the ship used to try and elude the pirates. Since they didn’t have any guns, the crew had to use the size of their ship to their advantage and create a wake that would be difficult for the pirate’s smaller ship to navigate. Science is fun!

Captain Phillips is a highly entertaining and thrilling movie and I really enjoyed Tom Hanks’ powerhouse performance. I’m glad that Hanks and I are back on the same page, however temporarily (he’s doing a third Robert Langdon movie). The cast, writers, director and cinematographer all produced a gripping movie that really makes you forget that you probably know how the story turns out. For me, Captain Phillips was a nice surprise. Though I went into the film out of a feeling of obligation to see the film, I walked out of the cinema having been thoroughly entertained. Captain Phillips is definitely worth going to see and is one of the better movies that I’ve seen so far in 2013.

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