Thursday, October 10, 2013

Everyone, Tom Hanks is Back: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013) / US / Out in NZ cinemas Oct. 24th / Directed by Paul Greengrass / Written by Billy Ray / Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Catherine Keener, Michael Chernus / 134 mins.

I've always had this notion about films being these fantastical things, capable of anything that couldn't possibly occur on Earth. However, after all of the CGI cheesecakes that have shown us about as much ground-breaking technology as we can get, it would seem that the thing that wows us most these days is realism. The films that don't feel like films. Naturally, being a true story helps, but in the past we've seen these true stories deviate from the reality and hit it home with sentimentality.

And then there's Captain Phillips.

There are not many contrived moments in this film. There aren't any really inspiring speeches with violins pulsating in the background. There are no great reunions at the end. While I don't claim to know every single detail of what it would be like to have a ship hijacked by Somalian pirates, this felt like the real thing.

The film gets off to a bit of a rocky start with a needlessly expository scene between our hero, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener), which is shot through some unnecessary hand-held camera - and you could be forgiven for thinking that for the rest of the film, the camera was going to be flying all over the place while people just talk. Alas, once Phillips gets out of the car, that's the last we see of the wife (surprisingly, there's no grand reunion scene at the end), but the handheld camera stays. Luckily, it simply aids the intensity of the film. You could say that handheld camera is just a cheat way to try and create 'gritty realism' - as seen in the earthquake-inspired camerawork in The Hunger Games (also scripted by Billy Ray) - but in Captain Phillips, it is completely natural. I forgot that I was even in a cinema. This is the beauty of Paul Greengrass' work on this film.For a film that takes place only on a ship, and then a tiny lifeboat, the film never lets up. It strips filmmaking down to the bare essentials, yet shows the full capability of film at it's very best: visceral, definitive, and real in portraying humanity at it's very worst, and consequently at it's very best. The  premise is simple: Somalian pirates take over a ship, far out to sea on the Somalian Coast, and wreak havoc for the people on board. We see the crew ward them off once, fail the second time, and try to navigate themselves to get help. At the helm we have Richard Phillips, who commands his crew in an astute and brilliant way.

If you're looking for any over the top patriotism and bombastic "I love America" scenes, you're not going to get it here. This is about a crew stuck out in the middle of the ocean, being terrorised by a group of pirates who use violent means to get what they want. While undoubtedly the story of Captain Phillips, both sides are presented. Usually you would have these caricature villains who live and breathe violence, but we do find out the motives and we do end up getting to know the villains. That doesn't feel overly forced, either.

That's a testimony to the skills of the actors. When it all boils down, the film is essentially just Tom Hanks and four African actors who have never been in a film before. And that's when the film is at its best. We have scenes of people trying to rescue Phillips, but the film truly has its most weight when it is just the five of them stuck in a tiny lifeboat. The performances by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali are all wonderful, and beyond being scary looking with a gun in hand. Abdi, particularly, is a standout as the group's leader, Muse, and I'd be happy to see him take some more roles in the future.

Of course, there's some certain danger about placing a well known actor like Tom Hanks in the lead role. Having his name headlining the posters would give you the impression that it couldn't possibly be anything other than a glossy Hollywood thriller masquerading as a true story. With a string of less-demanding roles, Hanks hasn't proved his true worth in quite some time; however, his work in Captain Phillips is definitely one of the best performances of the year. From his cold and demanding demeanor as the ship's captain, to the quiet way he navigates his possible escape options, Hanks does everything to dispel the notion that a bankable and popular movie star can let a true story seem fabricated. You've probably heard plenty already about how great the final scene is, but I have to join the chorus: that is some of the finest piece of acting any actor has ever been capable. I felt as if I was going to throw up watching it. If you need a reason to see this film, that scene is more than enough.

However, everything that comes before it is a thrilling and intense ride, and one that definitely won't leave you feeling relaxed at all. As much as I loved it, I highly doubt I could put myself through that trauma again.

How I felt about this one:


  1. Great review. And you're so right, Greengrass doesn't exactly make films that are easy to sit through. I've seen this twice now it knocked the wind out of me both times. Definitely not an easy ride.

    1. Wow, how could you go through it twice? I'm not sure I could!

    2. Haha. I'm going to see it a second time as well.

      Wonderful review, by the way. Hanks and the four African actors did a brilliant job. Greengrass is too good at making tense films!

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You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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