Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Captain Phillips

Grade: 66/B

When it comes to recreating real events for film, the first question shouldn’t be “how”, but “why”. Paul Greengrass hardly needed to justify himself with his excellent 2006 film United 93, which recreated the events aboard one of the planes in the September 11th attacks- it was the defining event of an era, and Greengrass’s film served as both a harrowing thriller and a stirring tribute to the people involved. But the “why” doesn’t come as easily with Captain Phillips, a well-made but rather thin thriller held back by its pretensions of having far more to say than it does.

The film follows the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), whose ship was boarded by Somali pirates in 2009. Phillips calmly tries to deal with leader Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), but as the crew avoids capture and the other pirates lose patience, he’s brought on board to the ship’s lifeboat. There, the pirates plan to ransom Phillips for money while the U.S. Navy plans his rescue.

As with United 93, the success of Captain Phillips is rooted in the minute-to-minute specificity of the action. Greengrass’s focus on long buildup to the pirates’ arrival is as tightly-wound as anything he’s ever crafted, and the drawn-out, claustrophobic lifeboat scenes are even better. It’s unfortunate that it’s paired with Henry Jackman’s bombastic, intrusive score, which hammers along throughout the film as if to remind us of how tense the situation is. Greengrass’s direction is assured enough not to need it.

Greengrass’s focus extends to Hanks and Abdi, both quite good as two men trying like hell to make the best out of a bad situation. A new actor, Abdi is a natural, both charismatic and conflicted as a man who sees piracy as the best way out of a desperate life. Hanks is even better as a man who has only one thing on his mind: survival for himself, his men, and, if he can help it, the pirates. Hanks’s innate likability has always been one of his greatest assets, but his strength here is that he couples it with a vulnerability that’s reminiscent of his excellent work in Saving Private Ryan. The final scene in particular is an acting master-class, with Hanks showing the lasting effect these events will have on him in a way that’s heartbreaking without seeming ostentatious.

But what’s it all in aid of? Captain Phillips is a skillfully crafted thriller with two very strong performances, but there’s little perspective on what’s (in the grand scheme of things) an awfully minor event. Where Phillips ends up by the end of the film doesn’t particularly relate to where he was at the beginning- the whole thing took an emotional and physical toll on him, but he hasn’t gone through much of a change as a person. The film also shoehorns in commentary about Muse’s choices being part of his way out of a tough life (and tries to make a parallel with a terrible intro scene between Hanks and a wasted Catherine Keener as his wife), but it doesn’t really have much to say about the way capitalism pushes these men. The problem with Captain Phillips isn’t that it isn’t well made or effective, but that it’s not actually about anything.

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1 comment:

  1. Great review. The last paragraph is where I think you really hit the nail on the head. The movie is fine technically speaking: its put together well enough to get some audiences on the edge if their seats, but ultimately it doesn't have much of a reason for existing. Played like a summer blockbuster with delusions of grandeur for me.