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Peril at Sea Double Feature Part II: Captain Phillips

November 22nd, 2013
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Last week I decided one intense man-faces-death-at-sea movie just wasn’t enough for me.  After watching Robert Redford’s harrowing performance in All is Lost (click here for my review), I went and saw Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips.

Tom Hanks plays the titular captain in this based-on-a-true-story of the shipping boat that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, eventually resulting in the ship’s captain being held hostage by the pirates in their lifeboat before ultimately being rescued by navy SEALS.

I’ve read a little bit of questioning as to how true-to-the-facts this heroic portrayal of Captain Phillips is.  Perhaps wisely, Mr. Greengrass avoided opening this film with the standard “based-on-a-true-story” text caption or something similar.  That, and the tremendous skill with which this nail-biter of a thriller has been crafted, allowed me to sit back and enjoy the film without spending the whole run-time questioning it’s veracity.  (It should also be noted that Mr. Greengrass has strongly defended the accuracy of his film.)

Paul Greengrass has become extraordinarily skilled at creating intensely suspenseful, almost documentary-feeling thrillers (that are either based on real events, or that feel like they COULD have been).  He’s so good at this, in fact, that the are quite a few of his films that I have chosen not to see, because they just seemed too tough to watch.  (For example, though I am sure it was made with tremendous craft, I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would ever consider watching United 93.  It just seems too painful.)

But I love Tom Hanks, and his involvement made me push aside any worries that this movie would be too stomach-churning for me to see.  I’m glad I did, because Captain Phillips is a very skillfully-made film.  It’s every bit as edge-of-your-seat intense as I had expected, and contains some wonderful performances.

In particular, I was quite taken by the work of the men playing the four main Somali pirates.  All four are extraordinary.  These non-actors perform better than most highly-paid Hollywood superstars.  Their work is extraordinary, so real and so immediate.  In addition to their strong work, I credit perfect casting and great direction by Mr. Greengrass to help fine and hone such wonderful performances.

Then there is Tom Hanks, so is so good so consistently that he makes it look easy.  For much of the film Mr. Hanks keeps his performance very reined in.  his Captain Phillips is a strong, confident man, but also internal, not prone to demonstrative speeches or big emotional explosions.  (The sharp scrip by Billy Ray, based on the book by Captain Phillips himself and Stephan Talty, is a significant factor.)  Probably my favorite piece of performance from Mr. Hanks in the whole film comes in the last five minutes.  After his rescue, Phillips is taken by the navy medics, and as the physician begins to examine him, asking him simple questions, Phillips is almost without words, and we can see the weight of the ordeal come crashing down upon him.

(Small SPOILERS here for All is Lost, so feel free to skip this paragraph.  I made mention in my review of that film that, while the moment they chose to end the film was poetic, it wasn’t fully satisfying to me.  I was left desperate to see what happened immediately after the last shot of the film.  Captain Phillips gives us those extra next minutes, and they are among the best five minutes in the film.  Well done, Mr. Greengrass and team.)

Captain Phillips is a taut thriller, a great suspense story anchored by strong performances and a director at the top of his game.  A very solid film.

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