FlixChatter Review: Captain Phillips

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I’ve been seeing quite a bit of biopic feature films this past year but obviously not all are created equal. I think the BOATS (based-on-a-true-story) sub-genre is best handled when it focuses on a certain period of time and this is a great example of one. The title refers to Captain Richard Phillips, based on his book A Captain’s Duty which detaills his harrowing ordeal aboard cargo ship Maersk Alabama that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.

The film didn’t spend much time on land, there’s perhaps only 10 minutes or so of exposition as the Captain was leaving to the airport with his wife. In the car they talk about their children and that they’re growing up in very different worlds from theirs. It shows that Phillips is just a regular family man who has the same worries as everybody else, and it’s just another day heading to work for the experienced mariner. Then the film contrast that scene with life in a coastal village in Somalia. A young, skinny Somali man is awaken by the ruckus outside his tiny hut of a home, it turns out the mercenaries are upset that the villagers haven’t gotten them any goods for their boss. That young man is Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), and soon he gathers his team to go out to sea in search of a ship to hijack. It’s an intriguing slice of life of a community that’s rarely portrayed in film or the media, which actually paints these teenage pirates as destitute and desperate people who think they have no other way to make a living.

UK Director Paul Greengrass is no stranger to making an effective thriller, both fictional and non-fiction, but this one is perhaps one of the most gripping thriller I’ve ever witnessed. Right from the time the ship departs its port on its way to Mombasa, Kenya, there’s an eerie feeling that something bad is about to happen. Now, of course we know the horror that lies for the crew of 20 aboard Maersk Alabama, but it doesn’t lessen the sense of dread. Tension keeps mounting from the time the two skiffs show up on the radar and it never lets up until the end.

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The brilliant script by Billy Ray highlights the relationship between Phillips and the pirates leader Muse. He amusingly calls Muse ‘Irish’ after he tells him he’s of Irish-American origin. Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi couldn’t have a more different acting background, but both of them give such a tour-de-force performance. Abdi was plucked from obscurity when he won the role amongst 700 applicants in a casting call in Minneapolis, yet the Somali actor has the chops to goes toe-to-toe with the two-timed Oscar winner on his first feature film role ever. I like the fact that this film gives a layer of complexity to his character, not simply painting him as a one-dimensional devil incarnate but a desperate individual who’s in over his head and nowhere else to go. The other pirates, as well as the Maersk Alabama crew (notably Michael Chernus as Phillips’ first mate) also give a decent supporting role.

As for the main name on the marquee, Hanks puts forward one of his best roles in recent memory. It’s a raw and emotional performance but not without his reliable charm and wit. The third of the film when Phillips was being held hostage in a tiny lifeboat made me feel claustrophobic and I felt my palms getting sweaty during the negotiations scenes. It was at times way too intense for my comfort level, but it was worth seeing Hanks’ in one of the finest acting I’ve seen all year. He captures the human psyche of a man in his darkest hour. Even with all the courage he could muster, it’s obvious Phillips’ mental state is quickly in disarray and it was quite an experience to watch such a convincing, nuanced depiction.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hanks name in the Oscar’s Best Actor roster once again, as well as the talents behind the taut, cerebral thriller. I applaud Paul Greengrass‘ work here, his kinetic style makes me feel like I’m part of the action without rendering me dizzy. He employs some shaky-cam style but he does it well that it doesn’t make the experience unbearable. With the help of an astute script by Billy Ray‘s, meticulous cinematography by Barry Ackroyd and atmospheric score by Henry Jackman, this film offers us a lot more than just dynamic action. It’s interesting to note that Greengrass also work with real life (retired) SEALS for the rescue scenes, as well as the nurse towards the end. Those who have seen the film might enjoy this article.

So if you like your thrillers nail-biting, with white-knuckle tension and fine character study thrown in, then don’t miss seeing this one on the big screen.


4.5 out of 5 reels

What do you think of this film? I’d love to hear it!