Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, Corey Johnson, and Max Martini
The Plot: Based on the true story of Captain Jack Sparrow and his salty band of seadogs as they attempt to hijack and reclaim the Black Pearl galleon as a reward for a lifetime of scallywagging and freebooting. Or something piratey like that. Cue the Disneyland ride music please.
The Film: We've reached the land of milk and honey at the cineplex in 2013. Films as great as Rush and Gravity (my review) shouldn't coexist in the same year, let alone the same theater complex during the same weekend. Now we can add another burden to your already taxed movie dollars - Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips.
Based on the actual events of 2009's Somali pirate hijacking Captain Phillips is another film in Paul Greengrass's trilogy of docu-thrillers (Bloody Sunday, United 93, Captain Phillips) he started making eleven years ago when he shot and released Bloody Sunday. His photo-realistic, handheld approach to filmmaking gives his motion pictures (emphasis on motion) the guerrilla spontaneity of YouTube footage, while never feeling too heavy-handed or scripted - even though the acting talent he wrangles for these projects should indicate otherwise.
Tom Hanks does what he always does. He makes terrific performances seem like the easiest thing in the world to pull off. If you have forgotten the limits of this actor's range watch the closing scene of Captain Phillips a few times over and try to think of anyone other than the actual Richard Phillips who could have capably exhibited this level of system shock. In five minutes of screen time, and saying nothing more than a few mumbled words, Tom Hanks has managed to leave all other film performances in 2013 drowning in his wake - a fitting pun if ever there was one.
Like Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday, (my favorite movie in this filmmaker's catalog - but Phillips sure seems qualified to usurp the throne in one or two more viewings) we're given both sides of this conflict - the crew of the Alabama and the small militia of Somali pirates persistently stalking the cargo ship.
In fact if a single word sums up Captain Phillips as a film experience it is persistence.
No one in this story is willing to give up. Though their ultimate goals may differ, the drive to attain them is fierce and dogged. Greengrass doesn't soft-sell piracy. This isn't Syriana. Much like he did in United 93 and Bloody Sunday he is simply willing to film all sides of a dramatic equation and leave it up to you to sort out the righteous from the unrighteous. The scenes where the pirates hunt down, chase down, and attempt to board the Maersk Alabama are some of the most vivid, thrilling scenes in anything this year. Phillips and crew aren't helpless prey for anything or anyone, and the gang set upon boarding them are absolutely unwavering.
A fitting image is a pod of starving orca whales trying to drown a gray whale.
I don't think we ever really sympathize with the Somali crew, but, because they end up in a situation clearly beyond their control and proficiency, I don't know if we condemn them either. They live in a country controlled by criminal warlords - a nutritional and financial wasteland with plump American cargo ships holding all the spoils of commerce drifting off of its coast. This isn't rocket science, it's venture capitalism at its most primal.
Even if it is their greed and pride that ultimately undo this ragtag collection of criminals, we can't discount Phillips' tenacity and ingenuity for the way this story concludes. Ultimately this is a film about two leaders - Captain Phillips and Captain Muse. (played by Barkhad Abdi who feels so authentic you'd easily believe Greengrass plucked him from a khat plantation and plunked him down in front of a camera) Each has a crew to think about. Each wants a resolution to the situation. Whether it's peaceful or not (it isn't) is seemingly out of both of their hands.
The Verdict: In Greengrass's stable of docu-thrillers Captain Phillips certainly comes off more hopeful than both Bloody Sunday and United 93. Which isn't to say that the film doesn't have bite. Captain Phillips puts on a clinic in graphic, engaging filmmaking. That Paul Greengrass makes it seem effortless is one of the Englishman's major contributions to cinema.
Expect a few nods for Captain Phillips once Oscar season arrives. Don't miss this.