“I’m the captain now.”
The saying goes, “If you have them in the first fifteen minutes, you have a good movie, but if you have them in the last fifteen minutes, then you have a hit,” and it is by this mantra that Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips dutifully abides. Amidst all of its socioeconomic juxtapositions, intensified historical dramatizations, and centric study of character, Phillips is a beat-by-beat situational thriller toughly structured by scribe Billy Ray. Its headlong progression from exposition to finale never once skips a storyline signpost, fully aware that the majority of audience members know the film’s real-life basis in nutshell form. Even when this genre-specific pitfall works to the film’s detriment and limits the intensity throughout the first two-thirds, poignant work by both Paul Greengrass and lead actor Tom Hanks end up resurrecting the entire picture during its investing third act. With the various first and second act issues notwithstanding, Captain Phillips banks heavily on its tremendous third act, which retroactively issues reasoning for purposeful choices made in the film’s earlier segments. But even regardless to all of that, it’s the culminating few minutes of the film that define it entirely; these enthralling moments will surely be a talking point for the rest of awards season and all but ensure Captain Phillips as an affecting hit with audiences.
Inspired by the published first-hand account, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, written by the eponymous sailor, Richard Phillips (Hanks) is commanding the US-flagged cargo ship – the Maersk Alabama – from Oman to Mombasa when a skiff quickly approaches carrying the threat of four heavily armed Somali pirates. After a great ordeal, they board Phillips’ ship and demand to know the whereabouts of his crew. When Phillips attempts to ease the situation by volunteering the $30,000 in the ship’s safe as a harmless and genuine peace offering, they instead commandeer the ship and force Phillips to guide them through the interior in search of the hiding crew. With the unpredictability of both parties mounting, and the seriousness of the situation growing exponentially, Captain Phillips soon finds himself ruthlessly captured and squaring off against the Somalian captain, Muse (authentic newcomer, Barkhad Abdi). It’s a fateful encounter to be determined by uncontrollable forces, 145 miles off the nearest coast.
Captain Phillips is of the same thriller breed that movies like Argo and Valkyrie stumble into. The stories behind the flicks are quite fascinating – they epitomize tales of bravery that have either fallen through the cracks or were suppressed from public knowledge for many years. However, now that so many people are in the know about the facets of the real life heroics, the task of creating legitimate thrills can become laborious and troublesome. In the case of Valkyrie, every moment of Hitler’s tyranny is available for study and even the most surface level historians – like myself – know that he didn’t meet his end at the hands of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and tried as Bryan Singer might have, he couldn’t save the film from capsizing. With last year’s Argo, Ben Affleck had a slight advantage in that the facts about the under the radar rescue mission were not released until the Clinton administration. It’s not yet a chapter in high school texts and may be awarded a footnote if anything. Captain Phillips, chronologically, is a very recent event by comparison, having been ripped from the 2009 headlines. In fact, I remember when this whole thing happened. And respectfully, Greengrass doesn’t play with the material like Affleck last year, who crafted an engaging, though not particularly tense, opening raid sequence, built with escalating momentum, and then concluded the film with a climax checking off rudimentary tension builders. By playing with audience frustration, he got our hearts racing. Greengrass never takes such avenues.
The film begins with some on-the-nose character construction looking to build the primary focus of the film: the foil between Phillips and Muse. Discussions of the competitive job-sphere in the United States, financial insecurity, and half-hearted assurances that his own family will survive any forthcoming discourse all remain back-of-the-mind problems for Richard Phillips. Muse, on the other hand, is at the beck and call of Somalian bosses, looking for stolen goods and pirated luxuries. The routes for success amount to very little for Muse and his contemporaries, and this socioeconomic adjacency is the foundation for the action to follow. From there, things do get going pretty immediately; just as Phillips is made aware of heavy piracy in the Somalian waters, he finds himself trying to outrun the speeding skiffs and sink them with the cargo ship’s hoses. These initial action sequences are the closest the film gets to Argo territory, with the pirates’ attempts and eventual success in boarding the Maersk Alabama calling back to the embassy onslaught that began last year’s Best Picture winner. Once the tense introduction between captains Phillips and Muse is made, things begin to lull. A maze-ish period of hide-and-seek on the ship is a slow grind as opposed to a slow burn, and then the systematic struggles of order cause a sprawling sequence of events. A location change is placed into the cinematic equation and then the ensemble becomes whittled down to just Phillips and his four Somalian captors. It all seems a bit jumbled and messy until the back third secures the motivation.
Billy Ray’s dialogue keeps things afloat as the film is forced to reconstruct itself. First act exposition of the respective captains getting onto their ships, entering the waters, and finally encountering one another is a conventional set up, but because of how narrow and even more sustained the film becomes entering its second act, it’s got to begin again from the bottom. This readjustment, in truth, is the film’s slowest section, and will be labeled that by many. Ray’s challenge to keep the developmental stages of the Phillips-Muse relationship – one is a constrained and scheduled Vermont resident, the other a broken young man brutally raised to act savagely – as well as reestablish the setting’s constructs is a tough balance, and he does a fine job, especially when having Hanks and the raw-talented Abdi riffing his lines. Greengrass gets dangerously close with the camera, and you can feel the uncertainty radiating off both characters, inserting a variety of astounding exterior shots accentuating the containment of the story in the seemingly endless ocean.
It is here that we arrive at the film’s golden measure – the Navy-headed rescue mission. The containment and construction that Greengrass has so meticulously enforced directorially from the film’s earliest moments nears eruptional verge. The Bourne-like assembly to the climactic action is masterful; the pace is quicker than ever and when it decides to burst, Greengrass’ subtle execution is effective to a jaw-dropping degree. My theater went silent, and my executive producer, Harrison Richlin, shot his hand over his mouth. Everything from minute one, whether you find it pulse pounding or serviceable – I fell mostly toward the latter – is placed as such to create the catharsis of this singular moment. Never has something so outright guaranteed in a film’s plot progression left me so breathless…and it doesn’t end there. It continues, for a few more minutes, zeroing in just Captain Phillips. And now, in the film’s lingering final moments, Hanks makes acting decisions so downright brilliant and reactionary and fitting that it’ll make him a serious Oscar contender this season. Spelling it out as bluntly as possible: The final quarter hour of Captain Phillips is so defining of the filmic experience that it may round out my top 10 films of the year as a result.
So by the opening proverb, Captain Phillips follows suit. Many will surely be harnessed in by the earlier sequences, but for me, its strength as a whole was guaranteed almost entirely on the success of its supreme crescendo. It could seem silly to weigh the bulk of a film on one crucial moment, but you would be disregarding Greengrass’ momentary reliance in United 93, in which the apogee immortalized an inconceivable perspective on one of this country’s most harrowing mornings. He’s the master of the retroactive, demanding that you realize his intentions long after they’ve come to pass. In Phillips, Hanks’ realistic emotional arc fuels so much of Greengrass’ objective, it would be foolish to ensure the attainment of such an ambitious goal without the assistance of an acting ability like Tom Hanks.
In closing, Captain Phillips is by the book until it decides to write the book, providing a exemplary angle on how to construct a realistic, historic, and restrictive thriller erupting momentarily to the audience’s fulfillment and disbelief. It is with these irrevocable triumphs that Captain Phillips is cemented as a hit.
Review by Mike Murphy