My first draft of this review contained what I thought to be a clever parallel between Captain Phillips and another recent action movie of critical acclaim, where two A-list actors may or may not be marooned in space. I posited that both films are similar in story and situation, and I finished it off by saying I think Captain Phillips is the more effective film because it better manages to draw real human emotion from its action. My husband said I was getting off track. Reluctantly, I agreed. And so, you get this instead:
Captain Phillips is far and away one of the best movies of the year, a spellbinding action tale that manages, despite its lack of a complex story or intimate character backgrounds, to morph into absorbing human drama. It features an electrifying central performance by Tom Hanks, as Richard Phillips, the real-life captain of a cargo ship that was hijacked off the coast of Somalia in 2009. After successfully negotiating the pirates away from his crew, Phillips was kidnapped to an escape sub for four days until the military moved in for rescue. I walked in to the theater with modest hopes — the film’s director, Paul Greengrass, has built an impressive resume with the stunning United 93 and the middle two Bourne films — and walked out drained, exhilarated, and convinced that Greengrass is now the best action filmmaker in town.
Captain Phillips is like a direct rebuke to the tiresome trend of slam-bang action films that leave a hole in the heart and little memory of their existence. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie of this caliber, one that hooked me with its tension, and then sucker-punched me at the end with a well-earned emotional wallop. It’s a masterful feat, accomplished by Greengrass’ subtle blending of white-knuckle action and absolute respect for the way an average man would react to being taken hostage on the high seas.
It’s a slow burn for the first twenty minutes. Phillips engages his wife in a brief conversation about the ways in which the world is changing, and then boards a plane for Africa. Later, he inspects the ship he’ll be navigating down the Somali coast. Greengrass and Hanks go about this business by the book, as if today will be no different than yesterday or the day before. All in a day’s work. Cash your check and go home. It’s clear from the outset that Phillips’ crew respect him only because they must, but there’s no real love between them: Phillips can be a hard-ass. As the crew finish up a short break, Phillips hovers over them. “Enjoying your coffee?” he asks sarcastically, his Boston accent heavy on the air.
Greengrass puts almost no dramatic weight in a series of missives Phillips receives about increased piracy in the area, a common warning for cargo ships. But then, on second thought, concern. Not much, but a little, just underneath Phillip’s icy surface. The captain abruptly insists that safety protocol be followed, even while in port, and instructs his chief engineer to initiate a safety drill, to which the crew reacts with mild confusion. Bells sound. Horns blare. Gates are slammed and locked. Men rush from deck to deck with soldierly precision. Simultaneous to the drill, pirates are already on the water. In a brief opening sequence, we see the chief Somali warlord picking his men for piracy duty — he settles on the skeletal Muse (played with a glimmer of fire by non-actor, Barkhad Abdi) to lead the charge — and thus informs us that the third world and Phillips’ American ship loaded with millions of dollars worth of cargo are meant to collide.
The boarding of the ship is played out with wire-thin tension, as Phillips follows protocol to evade the predators by creating wake turbulence to up-turn Muse’s boat, all to no avail. He turns on the hoses, but they do no good. Correctly presuming the pirates have a CB radio on hand, Phillips even tries a bit of desperate chicanery by faking a mayday distress call. This is quite a stretch of filmmaking.
All of this is sublimely intense action that moves quickly into a fight for survival, as Phillips and Muse’s men play a game of cat-and-mouse to see who can discover where Phillips has hidden his men below deck. As if all if this isn’t enough, the movie gets a full second act when Phillips is taken hostage aboard a cramped escape vessel. Here, Greengrass seamlessly merges the crackling action of a military rescue operation with Phillips’ intimate human survival story. Knowing that the military has surrounded the vessel, sending Muse and his men into a pattern of fear and paranoia, Phillips uses every tactic in his arsenal to stave off an all-out suicide mission by his captors. This sequence contains some of Hanks’ best work. Watch as Phillips’ years of training and control as a ship’s captain start to unravel when his brain begins to connect the dots: unless he does something to change the situation, he’s going to die. No two ways about it. Control turns to panic, and panic becomes fear, until Phillips is left with nothing but guilt and raw, unbridled anger.
Which brings me to the movie’s final scene, and the well-earned emotional wallop I mentioned. It would be all too easy to give these last few moments away, but I think they need to be experienced fresh, and untainted by my views. So, I’ll just say that it’s a single poignant and heartbreaking scene that involves acting so astonishing, it will take your breath away. Think back to the moment when Ennis Del Mar inhales the scent of Jack Twist’s shirt at the end of Brokeback Mountain and you’ll have some idea of its power.