Editor’s note: Kate’s review of Captain Phillips originally ran during this year’s NYFF, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in theatrical release today. Side note, it’s the best film currently playing in wide release. Go see it.
Early on in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, the eponymous Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) reads an email advisory from Maersk, the multinational business conglomerate that owns his vessel, that includes detailed information about incidents of high seas piracy in the exact area his Maersk Alabama happens to be sailing through on its way to Kenya. Phillips is already aware of the risks, and he’s taken precautions – later that day, he’ll even request his crew perform a series of safety drills – but all the warnings in the world won’t change his fate, and they certainly won’t remove the audience’s knowledge of what is coming.
Based on the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking and the real Captain Phillips’ book on the subject, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” Greengrass’ film is tasked with delivering a moderately fictionalized portrayal of a highly publicized event, and the final product is a wonderfully tension-filled and surprisingly even-handed version of events. Hanks excels in the leading role, effectively portraying an everyman trapped in extraordinary circumstances, and Greengrass’ action-savvy direction pairs perfectly with both his story and his lead actor.
Greengrass handily sets up parallel narratives between both Phillips and the four men who will eventually take over his ship, with special attention paid to their de facto leader, Muse (played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who is outstanding in his first role). By the time the two storylines converge after two white-knuckle high seas chase sequences (ever wonder how a bunch of pirates can hijack a massive cargo ship? Oh, you’ll learn – and you’ll understand), the motivations of everyone involved are crystal clear and wonderfully effective. Everyone’s really just doing their jobs – of course, some are considerably more legal than others – a basic enough set-up that easily puts different characters with different jobs at odds, but a classic one that suits the story at hand.
Though the events surrounding the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama unspooled over just three days, Greengrass has plenty to work with here, and Captain Phillips is neatly bisected into two sections with their own tensions, actions, and emotions to share. The first chronicles the actual ship hijacking, including both those high seas chase sequences and the eventual boarding of the ship by the pirates. Phillips, intent on protecting his crew, leads his captors on a game of cat and mouse, using both wit and fear to waylay them. Phillips’ crew (including supporting stars Michael Chernus and David Warshofsky, both quite good here) is very much up to the task, however, and when they capture Muse and demand a trade-off, things look to be going swimmingly.
Of course, if you’re at all familiar with what happened after the attempted switcheroo, you’ll remember that it didn’t go as planned, concluding with Phillips being trapped at sea with his four captors in Alabama’s small lifeboat. The film’s second half focuses on what occurred in the bobbing orange vessel, while a large scale military operation to free Phillips unfolds on the seas behind them.
Captain Phillips includes a number of sequences that hinge on highly technical stuff, from the mechanics of the ship itself to the military operations of the Navy during the rescue missions, and Greengrass niftily conveys even the most wonky information in a clear and understandable manner. Similarly engaged in the processes behind both the work environment of the pirates and the general standards of the Alabama, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd have energetically lensed the entire production, and it consistently engages. (Few people can make the loading of cargo containers seem as fascinating as an actual act of high seas piracy, but Greengrass does it with style.)
But what truly sets Captain Phillips apart from other high seas, high stakes adventures is a career-best performance from Hanks as Richard Phillips. Hanks is steady, believable, controlled, and relatable as the captain, easily slipping between different facets of his character in a highly immersive fashion. By the time the film reaches its inevitably heart-stopping conclusion, Hanks has similarly reached another level in his performance, the impact of which resonates long after the credits come up.
The Upside: Tom Hanks gives a remarkable performance as Richard Phillips, a very well-calibrated, controlled, believable, and eventually highly emotional turn that’s among his very best work; Barkhad Abdi is a breakout; the film is wonderfully and neatly directed by Paul Greengrass; action-packed and tension-filled.
The Downside: Some of the tension falls slack between the second and third acts, Catherine Keener is underutilized as Andrea Phillips (though the only interaction between Hanks and Keener is a bit cheesy and exposition-filled).
On the Side: You can visit the actual lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida.