Captain Phillips (2013)

by - October 11th, 2013 - Four-Star Corner Movie Reviews


Gripping Phillips Captains a Heroic Ship

Calling Captain Phillips the best procedural to hit theatre screens since last year’s Zero Dark Thirty isn’t hyperbole. While I wouldn’t stick director Paul Greengrass’s latest on the same instantly classic plateau as Kathryn Bigelow’s hunt for Bin Laden stunner or mention it in the same breath as the filmmaker’s own 9/11 masterpiece United 93, none of that still changes the fact this Somali pirate drama is one of 2013’s best motion pictures. Featuring performances by Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi deserving of award recognition, showcasing kinetic filmmaking chops that electrify, devastate and enthrall, this based-on-fact suspense tale is terrific, everything building to a magnificent conclusion that stopped my heart cold.


Richard Phillips (Hanks) is the Captain of the container cargo shipping vessel Maersk Alabama. He knows how dangerous the current route along the Somali coast is, making sure his entire crew is on point whether they comprehend the situation or think he’s acting hypochondriacally.

But those fears prove to be well founded when the Maersk Alabama is attacked by pirates. Led by the lithe, calmly menacing Muse (Abdi), they are excited about the payday involved if they can capture the ship’s crew and cargo. But Captain Phillips is one step ahead of them, handicapping their successful takeover with intelligence and experience born from decades of sailing the high seas. Yet in the end he only sees one way to ensure his entire crew survives; allow Muse and his men to take him captive leaving the Maersk Alabama in a small emergency vessel and hope the U.S. military comes to his aid before they reach Somali shores.

Following as close as it can to Phillips’s memoir of the 2009 event (co-written with Stephan Talty), Billy Ray’s (The Hunger Games, Breach) ambitious script sports vice-like emotional controls allowing the inherent tension of the story to come to fruition with unfathomable subtly which has the effect of putting the viewer in a state of relentless worry that never disappears. Greengrass keeps the focus where it need to be, most notably on the relationship between Captain Phillips and Muse, only shifting perspectives when the Navy and subsequently the SEALs arrive in order to attempt to wrest control away from the pirates.

None of which would matter if the two actors at the heart of all of this weren’t up to the challenge. Hanks hasn’t dug this far into a character in ages, probably since Saving Private Ryan, manufacturing a self-contained portrait of grace under increasing pressure that never boils over. The two-time Academy Award-winner doesn’t allow himself to overtly emote until the situation demands it, the breadth of emotions he has traveled through coming from a place of extreme authentic trauma and he makes immediate and relatable.

Abdi is his doppelgänger. With his first major credit, the young actor takes what could have been a stereotypical monster and makes him human, almost pitiable, his actions and choices undeniably risible yet still he manages to make the consequences both he and his men are facing to feel tragic and heartbreaking in the same breath. Abdi’s sly, serpentine presence is the film’s most astonishing asset, the way he juxtaposes little insights into his own history, even as events spiral out of control pertaining to his abduction of Captain Phillips, touchingly profound.


The technical aspects are all exemplary, veteran cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) shooting things with a documentary-like verisimilitude that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. Same goes for Christopher Rouse’s (The Bourne Ultimatum) intensely alert editing, the manner in which he ratchets up suspense with such pinpoint exactitude beyond reproach. Every technical element works in exquisite tandem with all of those surrounding it, thus allowing the core emotionalism at the center of things to stay in constant focus.

Greengrass directs as skillfully as ever, controlling the action like a master composer making certain no instrument is out of tune or single note is sour. His confidence assembling things together is magnificent, the filmmaker taking what could have been a familiar, if still entertaining, real life tale of heroism and making it into something invigoratingly timeless. Captain Phillips doesn’t present new ideas so much as it puts a mirror to the best and the worst of human nature, allowing the viewer to make of that glimpse what they will, the resultant life lessons striking in their universality.

– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle

Film Rating: 4 (out of 4)

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