Review: 'Captain Phillips'


Paul Greengrass makes you feel stuff. Sometimes this is literal, thanks to the frantic pace of his trusty handheld cameras. And sometimes this is emotional, thanks to his ability to turn stories about courage and/or desperation into cinematic gold.

In Captain Phillips, his latest pulse-pounding masterpiece, the stakes are perpetually high. You're pretty sure the captain will survive, because it's based on real life and he's played by a Hollywood legend. But as tensions mount and his prospects look bleaker and bleaker, you start to wonder. And sweat. And, best of all, feel for the hijackers almost as much as you feel for the protagonist. That, my friends, is a gift.

There have always been complaints about Greengrass's herky-jerky filming style, and perhaps the open seas aren't the place for such camera hijinks (one friend complained that two people she went with 'got seasick'), but I think it's proven worthwhile not in the action sequences but in the more intimate moments. When his characters get into tight spaces and Greengrass brings you right up next to them, every hint of emotion is visible. It's no wonder that he leans towards films where, for duty or to fulfill their own personal needs, everyone trudges on against seemingly insurmountable odds. Those kinds of people make the best faces.

Also, how have I gone this many paragraphs without mentioning Tom Hanks?! The honorable Mr. Hanks turns in his best performance since 2004's The Terminal (it's good, trust me) as the titular captain, a long-time merchant marine whose shipping vessel encounters a gang of Somali pirates during a journey across the Indian Ocean.

Hanks is positively fantastic; sometimes it can take a good bit of effort to remind yourself that no, that's not Tom Hanks up there, it's Charlie Wilson/Robert Langdon/Cloud Atlas Guy. But he slips so perfectly into Captain Phillips (and his goatee), taking very little advantage of that lovable everyman persona while making you believe in his own particular brand of fortitude.

It also helps that most of his scenes are with an outrageously talented group of unknown Somalian actors, led by Barkhad Abdi as head pirate. The movie sometimes tries a bit too hard to find the parallels between Captain Phillips and Abdi's character (including lines like "I'm the captain now") but for the most part you can sense the equal parts confidence and fear Hanks exudes when dealing with his captors. He can tell they're young and inexperienced, but also unhinged, desperate and armed. Each little victory he scores over them can be easily erased with one errant pull of the trigger. And yet, we know that they're only acting out of pure desperation; failure means disgrace and death. Every interaction between Hanks and the pirates, if not always realistic, is tinged with real emotion.

But it's the final scene, in particular, that sticks with me. At the end of most movies you get some version of a deserved bow and a 'hooray for the good guy,' but not in Captain Phillips. We're left to follow the good captain in the immediate aftermath of his return to safety, including the entirety of his post-rescue examination. He's in shock; he can barely move or speak. He understands rationally that he's away from danger, but how do you convince yourself of that after hours, days even, of absolute terror?

It's a tremendous bit of realism in a movie chock full of quiet courage. Nothing that Captain Phillips does is otherworldly; he doesn't karate chop any pirates or steal a gun and save the day. All he does is think smart, act fast and value the needs of the many over the needs of the few. So when he's plopped back in friendly waters, there's no victory cigar or snifter of brandy. There's violent shaking and crying, and a man desperately trying to remind himself that the worst is somehow over. It's a nice reminder from Greengrass that the world doesn't end when the camera turns off.