Paul Greengrass has a reputation for making exceptionally realistic, intense, action thrillers. He did The Bourne Supremacy – which re-invented action movies, United 93, and the Bourne Ultimatum. When I say that the Bourne Supremacy re-invented action movies, let me clarify. His action hero was understated, and his action was up close and personal. He uses a lot of hand-held non-steady-cam work in order to make the audience feel that it is part of the action. Some people love this, “I feel like I’m in this fistfight!”, and some people don’t, “All this shaky camera action makes me nauseous!” I tend to be in the second group. I would prefer you back the camera up and let me see every inch of your carefully crafted action sequence, as opposed to the three inch close-ups between punches.
His trademark intense style is perfectly on display with Captain Phillips. Actually, it fits perfectly well with this movie. It is based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was captaining the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama as it shipped supplies around the horn of Africa in 2009. It was hijacked by Somali pirates, and he was kidnapped to be held for ransom, to then be rescued by Navy Seals.
Greengrass’s style fits the story beautifully as it builds in intensity during the course of the movie. We see Phillips prepping for his journey and saying goodbye to his wife. We also see the Somali pirates decide who is going on their mission, and prepare to hunt for a ship to capture. The two stories run parallel until they converge on the ship as it is midway through its route. As Phillips and his men notice the pirates and follow all their anti-pirate drills, they dissuade the pirates once, but they return and board. It is a bit mystifying how four pirates in a speedboat could hijack a large shipping freighter, but this movie does a good job of explaining it.
Muse (the lead pirate) and his crew take over the ship as Phillips instructs his men to hide in the engine room and shut down the ship. Muse then insists on finding the crew, leading to a very tense situation in the engine room that results in Muse being taken by the crew while Phillips is held by the rest of the pirates. He tries to get them off the ship into the lifeboat, but the plan backfires and the four pirates take off in the lifeboat with Phillips. At this point, the Navy shows up, and the final standoff begins.
The tone is amazing, and the tension builds to an almost exhausting point. The movie has a similar feel to Argo last year. It’s absolutely an Oscar-bait film, but it does have moments where it plays like an action movie – making it one of the more watchable Oscar-bait items out there. It does have a small cast, but those it in are fantastic.
- Tom Hanks – well, there is no doubt that Hanks has become one of the best actors of this generation. His portrayal of Phillips is apparently spot-on, and his progression through this story is amazing. He maintains his calm in the face of danger, and always puts the safety of his crew first. I greatly appreciated Hanks’s non-verbal performances in this movie, especially near the end of the movie where he is trapped in the lifeboat with the pirates. He keeps trying to talk them down, knowing that the Navy will not be as forgiving. His devastation at the end result is only outdone by his final breaking moment when he realizes that he has been rescued and is safe. It’s an amazing performance, and he will certainly be nominated. Whether or not he wins depends on whether or not the voters can get over the horrific-ness of 12 Years a Slave to reward the brilliance that is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance.
- Catherine Keener makes almost a cameo performance as Phillip’s wife. They have a discussion in the car as to whether or not their kids will be okay in the world they are growing up in.
- The four Somali actors playing the pirates, Barkhad Abdirahman (Bilal), Faysal Ahmed (Najee), Mahat M. Ali (Elmi), and Barkhad Abdi as Muse are all fantastic. I loved learning that all four of them are from Minneapolis (which has one of the largest populations of Somali immigrants in the country) who went to open auditions to see what would happen.
- Barkhad Abdi’s performance is especially haunting, and yes, he absolutely should be nominated for supporting actor. His eyes are exceptionally expressive, and for someone with no prior acting experience, he was amazing. He did have many scenes where he does have to go toe-to-toe with Hanks, and he does pull it off. In particular, the scenes near the end, where Phillips is telling Muse he has to turn back, and he finally looks at Phillips to tell him that he has come too far to turn back – his face reads a perfect sense of hopeless desperation.
- The actors that play the rest of the crew on the ship, including Michael Chernus (Shane Murphy), David Warshofsky (Mike Perry), Corey Johnson (Ken Quinn), and Chris Mulkey (John Cronan) are many actors you have seen before, but for some reason in this movie – they all look more natural than I have seen previously. They all did well, and were impressive in the smaller roles they had.
- Max Martini who pretended to be Australian in Pacific Rim plays the Navy SEAL commander who takes over the situation and solves it in the most business-like manner possible. Remind me never to cross a SEAL.
All in all, it’s well worth the viewing. It is a bit long, they probably could have cut a half hour from the prep-time, but the sense of tension and claustrophobia is well maintained. The movie is a success, it is exceptionally well-crafted and supremely performed. I am not sure I would call it entertaining or enjoyable, but it is really well done. The movie was based on Phillip's book - so by all means, check it out if you want to know how authentic the movie is.
7 out of 10 – Similar to Argo. Lost points for the length. Gained points for the tension. Lost points for never really explaining Khat – which is what the Somalis were chewing. It is a flowering plant native to the horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It has been chewed as a social custom dating back thousands of years. It contains a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, which is an amphetamine-like stimulant. It is said to cause excitement, loss of appetite, and euphoria. In 1980 – the WHO classified it as a drug that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence (although less than tobacco or alcohol). And now you have learned something, be sure to bring that up at your next dinner party. “Say, did you see Captain Phillips? I found the portrayal of the khat-addiction of the pirates very interesting. Oh, you don’t know what Khat is? Let me explain it to you.” I’m sure that will make you a hit at any party - you're welcome.
Bonus Video 1: Argo – in case you missed it last year – check it out.
Bonus Video 2: Tom Hanks in the Money Pit – one of my favorite old Hanks movies.
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews: