Paul Greengrass, director of The Bourne Ultimatum, has turned his ever-shaking camera towards the high seas, as he brings us the story of a cargo ship under attack by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks, the titular Captain Phillips, must struggle to save both himself and his crew from the armed and very dangerous intruders.
Captain Phillips shares many of the hallmarks of Greengrass’ Bourne movies. The camera-work, while mildly less epileptic, still seems as if it was done by someone who would have failed a “walk-in-a-straight-line” driving test. There are lots of scenes of government officials staring at screens and saying things like “we have visual on targets,” and even, ominously, “all targets are red…execute.” If targets are red, you know things are about to get serious.
Thankfully, the gritty, realistic, in-your-face suspense that elevated those earlier action movies is very much evident. This is the closest thing to a pirate abduction it is possible to experience without actually being abducted by pirates. With the use of extreme close-ups and choppy camera movements, Greengrass skillfully captures the claustrophobic confines of a ship’s lifeboat and the jerky motion of a pirate skiff; as he lingers on faces glistening with sweat, it is almost possible to feel the heat of the airless confines of a ship’s engine room.
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The film’s pace is relentless, and the first half of the movie is a near-perfect example of thrilling tension as we bear witness ever-escalating confrontation between Phillips and Somali pirate Muse. One of Captain Phillips’ most admirable aspects is the way in which it humanizes the pirate antagonists. Muse (played brilliantly by Barkhad Abdi) and his compatriots felt almost more fully realized than Phillips himself; Phillips’ characterization is a bit too trite, too rote and obvious, to be fully effective. He’s an American man with a family, as are most action movie heroes, and I suppose the fact that he has a family is supposed to make us automatically like him. He’s easy enough to root for, if only because of the traumatic nature of his situation, but he doesn’t feel entirely fleshed out as a character, despite Tom Hanks’ fine performance.
Still, this shortcoming is quick forgotten as the film plunges into its first pirate attack, and then a second. It’s easy to get lost in the action.
Where the film stumbles is in its second half. It’s not really anyone’s fault; its problems stem from the very nature of the true story Captain Phillips is based on. As the film enters its second half, the constant sense of peril and non-stop tension can become wearying. A more pressing problem is that the film’s resolution ultimately lies outside the control of all the principal characters—Captain Phillips, Muse, and the other Somali pirates. The fate of all these characters comes to rest in the hands of a few nameless Seal commandos and navy officials, who attempt to negotiate Phillips’ release. It’s a problem of storytelling when the protagonist of your movie is relatively inactive and irrelevant to the movie’s climax and confusion—I took similar issue to the climax of Zero Dark Thirty, when the protagonist was absent for the movie’s rousing finale.
There were a few ways this problem with the long second act might have been averted—either by focusing the story around a change of character that Phillips underwent as a result of his experience, or by fudging the facts so that the interplay between Phillips and the pirates had a greater impact on the course of the story. But the movie was ultimately hesitant to fudge any real-life facts; an approach that is admirable in its fidelity but makes for slightly less satisfying storytelling.
On the whole, Captain Phillips is an impressively suspenseful, well-filmed and well-acted thriller that manages to show many sides to a complex and nightmarish situation. It’s hard to find a movie that achieves and maintains this level of frenetic suspense from start to end, much less one based on real events. Hopefully thrillers will be taking lessons from Paul Greengrass and Captain Phillips for many years to come.