In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips, a sea captain for the Maersk cargo line, received directions for a sea trip from Oman to Mumbasa, Kenya. Phillips is dropped off by his wife (Catherine Keener) at the airport and departs for Oman. Phillips is warned of pirates in the area and becomes nervous, performing lockdown drills and making sure his men are prepared for any pirate attacks from Somalia. Then, one failed attempt later, pirates board his ship, the Maersk Alabama. The pirates are led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and their main goal in hijacking the ship is a ransom upwards of $10 million dollars. What ensues is a kidnapping, a hostage situation, a military intervention and an explosion of violence.
Of all the big "Oscar" movies released so far, Captain Phillips is the most imperfect. It has several pacing issues, a few problems with its villains and is a little misdirected in some of its choices. But it is still miles ahead of most of 2013's films. It's an extraordinary piece of filmmaking and doesn't fall into the same pitfalls that Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty did last year. Captain Phillips plays on the emotions, is smartly written and is an intense, visceral experience, yet it maintains the viewer's attention throughout. My eyes, and the eyes of the audience at my packed screening were fixated on the screen.
The power of the film mostly lies in the direction of Greengrass, the mostly fast paced script by Billy Ray, and the acting power of Tom Hanks. A lot of conversation lies around the Somali newcomers who play the pirates. They were good, but while most people are talking about Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, I was actually most impressed with Barkhad Abdirahman. He plays the youngest of the pirates and he has a barrage of emotions throughout the movie. Abdi does a good job portraying a man who seems to want more than the life he has, but he isn't extraordinary. The other two actors succeed in acting insane, violent and frightening, almost constantly.
Despite how good the Somali actors are, the real star of the show is Tom Hanks. He gives an extraordinary performance that is certainly the best male performance I've seen this year so far. He conveys so many emotions during the course of the film and performs like a human would in his situation. And finally, as everyone has said, the best part of Hanks' performance is the final ten minutes. After the climax, Hanks and Greengrass finally convey the emotions of someone who was just in a traumatic event perfectly. Instead of acting like the hero and walking away with a smile on his face, Hanks portrays Phillips as being completely dazed, shocked and confused. It's a perfect ending to a harrowing film.
Like I said in an earlier paragraph, Captain Phillips has problems. It falls into the pitfall that I despise the most: a slow second act. Once the pirates board the ship and take over, it becomes tense in a way, but never to the extent that it is in the beginning or end. It's also a little sluggish during scenes with the pirates on the lifeboat that Phillips is a prisoner on. But, honestly, when the third act comes in, you won't know what hit you. But still, pacing is slightly uneven in this film.
Also, the film's attempt to sympathize with the pirates failed. It honestly did. I felt for the kid, I felt a little bit for Muse, but the other two were just violent, deplorable human beings. The film makes Phillips care about the kid a little bit and maybe slightly Muse, but in the end, the final minutes show what Phillips really thinks about the pirates. Greengrass throws in a bit about Muse longing for America, but it never really works.
The film also makes a weird choice or two towards the beginning of the film. First off, there's the fact that Catherine Keener is wasted. She literally appears for about two minutes of the movie. A waste there. Then there's the fact that the movie pulls a bait and switch on you within the first half hour. You see the pirates and they get really close to the Alabama. But then their boat breaks. We have a couple minutes of down time and then it's right back at it and the ship is hijacked. An interesting choice there, and one that I didn't particularly like. I'm sure that it is based on fact, but you know, lots of fact based movies have cut things out before. In some ways, having the false alarm hijacking takes away the tension of the other. I thought it was a poor choice on Greengrass' fault and he should have done something to make the following sequence more effective.
Captain Phillips has problems. It's not a flawless movie, but it also does a lot of things right. It manages to use shaky-cam in a way that works, which is quite an achievement. I've always thought that Greengrass' Bourne films, while fantastic, overdid it on the shaky-cam. Here, Greengrass' camera motions are shaky yet fluid in a way, so that you still understand what's going on. It benefited from that. Also, Greengrass made a smart choice by focusing on Phillips and the pirates instead of on the crew members or the military. He puts just enough military tension/action into the film so that you are kept engaged during the slower parts of the film.
Despite all the great things that Greengrass does in this movie, nothing tops the third act. Not since The Impossible have I been so rattled and shaken by a film. It is incredibly intense film, but unlike The Impossible, Captain Phillips fries your nerves and makes you shake with terror while still entertaining you (adding on to the intensity was the fact that I was starving). Most people will know the end of this film going in. I actually didn't. That only added to the intensity. However, I knew it was coming and I won't spoil it here, but all the screaming, yelling and nerve-frying tension leads up to a climax so shocking, you'll be rattled.
Captain Phillips is PG-13. I don't quite know how. Sometimes I just don't understand the MPAA. Why are things like Argo and Silver Linings Playbook, both relatively mild films, rated R, while very intense films like Captain Phillips and The Impossible, are PG-13. Captain Phillips is actually not all that bad. It's just an intense film that features a very violent scene towards the end. It's probably fine for most teens, but it is a visceral and sometimes graphic film.
Captain Phillips is a great film, by some definitions. It's an extremely intriguing, exciting, tense, emotionally affecting thriller. I haven't been this emotionally affected by a film in a long time. Greengrass and his team succeeded big time. However, it falls short of greatness for me because of a little thing called the re-watch factor. Captain Phillips is definitely something that I will buy at some point, but it isn't something that I am dying to see again. I know that some people will disagree with that, and that's fine by me. It's my grading system and the way that I look at films. Still, a little quibble should not stop you from seeing this extraordinary film in theaters and experiencing all the emotion of Captain Phillips for yourself.
Note: This was a very difficult film to grade as it teeters on the edge of B+/A-. It was so hard for me to decide. I'll stick with an A- for now, as it is a great film, but know that it does have problems.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.6/10)