Sunday, October 13, 2013

Captain Phillips is pulse-pounding from start to finish

Most of Paul Greengrass' films fall into the quasi-category of "smart people doing smart things."  Sure, he's also known for his gritty realism and heavy use of handheld camerawork, but his films are so impressive in their mixture of broad entertainment and intelligent filmmaking that they have basically become a brand of their own.  It's no coincidence, then, that the one aberration in his filmography is 2010's Green Zone, which was hindered by muddied motivations and shaky plotting.  Luckily Captain Phillips, his latest "based on a true story" film, is more like the rest of his work in that regard.

The film starts out with the titular character (played by Tom Hanks) getting ready for what he expects to be a routine day of manning a cargo ship set to sail around the Horn of Africa, an area known for its presence of dangerous pirates.  This is introduction -- like all of Greengrass' work -- is economical, effectively setting up who Captain Phillips is and what his life is like outside of his job, where he has a loving wife waiting for him at home.  From there, the film gets straight to the action, as the ship quickly comes under the attack of a band of Somali pirates.  The portion of the film where the pirates board and search the cargo ship could almost exist as its own white-knuckle mini-thriller.  Tom Hanks is terrific as the level-headed Phillips, and his attempts to get out of this life-threatening situation with minimal collateral damage are riveting to watch.  Chess match metaphors are pretty tired at this point, and it's especially moot when the stakes are as high as they are here, but there's a reason why there are so many mentions of "playing games" from characters in the movie.  The first half of the film is like The Most Dangerous Game if it were contained to a large cargo ship, and the jockeying for control of the situation ramps up considerably as it goes along.  This isn't the first hijacking that these pirates have done, so the script -- and Phillips by proxy -- manages to come up with some really clever ideas to try wriggle free of their hold.

The film is never as exciting as it is in that first half, which is some of the tensest stuff I've seen all year, but it's only in the second half that it begins to feel like a substantial work.  It'd be easy to make the pirates one-dimensional characters, because it's even easier to root for the American protagonist's quest for survival if he's fighting against foreign savages.  However, Greengrass spends much time on the psychology of the pirates, particularly Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the group.  Captain Phillips may be the title, but its really about the twin journeys of Phillips and Muse.  The two of them are opposed, but both of their stories are about their determination to survive and the dedication to their goals.  We may not be asked to sympathize with Muse and the rest of the pirates, but the film does require that you understand them, which ends up making them even more effective as villains.  There are moments where it can feel manipulative (take the youngest pirate, who shows more compassion than the others, for instance) but the script keeps things simple enough to still work.

Greengrass shoots all of this in the same style as the rest of his films, full of tight close-ups, shaky cam, and frequent cuts.  These choices only serve to keep you right in the action, leaving you as on edge as the characters within the film are.  Everything works on such a visceral level that the film never feels as long as its 133 minute runtime would suggest.  Captain Phillips spends so much of its time winding the audience up that the conclusion of the film, where the tension finally releases, leads to a powerful sense of catharsis.  It's a finale as tense as anything since the bunker raid in Zero Dark Thirty, with a final scene that's even more devastating. 

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