"Captain Phillips" (2013)- Movie Review

Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray
Starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi

‘A Compelling Hijacking Thriller’

“Captain Phillips” is the most intense movie-going experience I’ve had in years, maybe even decades.

Paul Greengrass’ harrowing, white-knuckle suspenseful thriller, which revolves around a desperate hijacking, bravely tackles topics that movies of this age tend to avoid. A pulse-pounding, spine-tingling intense recreation of a real-life event, it’s one of the rare “based-on-a-true-story” motion pictures I’ve seen that’s truly engaging from start to finish. Whereas the majority of movies these days usually take their time in building suspense, as well as tension, “Captain Phillips” grabs you by the collar as soon as the conflict is introduced. When Richard Phillips, the captain of a local cargo ship, is informed that a few boats are headed in the direction of his vehicle, you’re immediately invested in one of the most intriguing- and disturbingly realistic films- you’ll ever come across this year. But to say that it’s merely a typical Hollywood thriller would be understating the meaningful complexity behind the film’s topics, as well as the power of the cast.

The story, taken out of the pages off a shocking real-life event, follows Tom Hanks in his best performance in years. As the distressed captain of a ship, the actor is confidently distinguished, and the eye-hole through which we feel the turmoil and neck-breaking fear experienced by an ordinary man in the most dangerous of circumstances. In the role of Richard Phillips, a solemn, by-the-numbers and methodical man, the actor is bought to his knees in his own cargo ship overseas. The intruders are a group of desperate Somalian pirates.

Their leader, a skeletal thin, scary-looking fellow named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) impatiently demands money. Bags of it. Yet even as Phillips offers as much as he possibly can, the pirates appear to have bigger plans to commit than expected. It’s then that “Captain Phillips”, a seemingly ordinary thriller transforms into a fascinating examination of the sheer power of poverty and how it drives those that are deprived to life-threatening lengths. Questionably, is the deprivation faced by such impoverished people a result of their social upbringing, or purely the stature of their country?

In a day and age where such topics affect countless lives around the world, this unbearably suspenseful, timely film bravely confronts them.

As the tension between the pirates and the Captain’s crew aboard the Maersk Alabama ship heats up to jarringly scorching levels, what unexpectedly follows is something more meaningful, complex and thought-provoking than a simple tale of good v.s. evil. Richard Phillips’ authoritative and seemingly aggressive nature is tested against the ferocity of the furious pirates, and even when this seems like scattered clichés to a ‘style-over-substance’ action thriller it surprisingly isn’t. Due to intelligent direction by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, we emotionally emphasize and sympathize with both sides of this conflict. Whether it’s the tragic desperation faced by pirates that are driven by a global disaster, not sole willingness to commit a crime, or the mentally draining situation that Phillips is thrown into, the director makes us care about both. The result is simply marvelous: a film that makes us consider, and ponder over the contrasting viewpoints of two different classes of people.

You may have to look closer to witness it, but there’s a great achievement to be gaped at here. Instead of staying within the boundary of restrictions Hollywood often places on filmmaking, such as creating certain stereotypes to please audiences, director Paul Greengrass ambitiously turns them upside down. Each character, situation and conflict is delved in a dreary sense of realism, so much that halfway through the film I found myself questioning; could they virtually exist in today’s world? The pirates, made to look as real as possible, certainly could. If they were in any other movie, I can’t help but imagine them being unfairly portrayed as stereotypical ‘bad-guys’ to purely entertain. “Captain Phillips” may be one of the only films I’ve seen that doesn’t resort towards such clichés.

Although the pirates’ intimidating appearances at first make you squirm in alarming disdain, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Deep underneath their menacing intentions lies wondrous reasons behind their actions and even soul. The first time we see them is also the point at which we realize that they’re driven by uncontrollable forces. Uneducated, poor and in tragically desperate need of money, they are ordinary people stuck in extraordinarily daunting conflicts. Greengrass’ skill at creating realism is jaw-droppingly rare and breathtaking in the sense that he manages to create these people so they behave and react like any ordinary human being.
Take into consideration the way in which they talk to each other. Purely by examining their faces, you can strikingly feel a slew of human emotions in their facial expressions yet also naturalism in their reactions. Nervous, unsure, and at times even ingesting fear, they’re flawed people who have heartbreaking perspectives behind their motivations. We especially sympathize with the wounded Muse, their aggressive leader played brilliantly by newcomer actor Barkhad Abdi. Unable to cope with the poverty that affects his life, his dream is to move to America, and experience his definition of a good life. What’s deeply saddening is the irony of his situation, in which he’s kidnapped an American man and naively believes this antic can solve his conflict. Powerfully crafting a person that audiences can resonate with, Abdi himself is an absolute marvel to behold in the role and soulfully projects the point-of-view of the pirates.

Albeit the rest of the pirates aren’t as well-developed or fascinating as Muse, it would be downright unfair to dismiss the talents of the remaining Somalian actors. Impressively, each one brings a distinguishing characteristic to stand out. In some kind of a rare miracle, Greengrass is able to achieve top-notch work from them even in spite of the fact that they are mere newcomers to acting.

Where his execution falters, though, is unexpectedly in the handling of the cinematography. Having seen the director’s “Bourne” films, I always thought that Greengrass was an expert at handling the ‘shaky-cam’ method of shooting movies. With “Captain Phillips”, however, I have to admit that he gets carried away with this technique of filmmaking. Although, the shots put us right into the middle of the claustrophobia and sweat-filled intensity of the film’s events, creating a distinct atmosphere, the result on the viewer is far from enjoyable. As the camera zooms all over the place, creating the illusion of watching through someone’s eye, the sensation produced is sickening. Maybe these are the intentions of the director, as he surely wants you to feel what the characters are going through. But what bothers me is why create shots that make it feel as if the cameraman has to use the washroom?

Any other film might have collapsed under the heavy weight of such underwhelming cinematography, yet needless to say “Captain Phillips surprisingly stands tall. The reason? Tom Hanks, shriveled in fear and agonizing anguish, relentlessly commands the screen in a haunting performance. Every drop of panic-stricken sweat that protrudes out of his body is felt by us, the feeling of dreary hopelessness in his eyes connects with us and when we least expect it, he makes us feel just about every single emotion he’s clinging on to. As his heart thudded against the echoing confinements of the Pirates’ maneuvered lifeboat, I recall my heart thumping so fast that it was- at one point- ready to burst out of my chest. Such intimate experiences aren’t the kind that I come across everyday.

4/5 stars

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