NYFF 2013: ‘Captain Phillips’ is an electrifying, heart-pounding, and riveting thriller

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Captain Phillips

Written by Billy Ray

Directed by Paul Greengrass

USA, 2013

In 2009, the U.S. container vessel Maersk Alabama, while transporting food cargo bound for Mombasa, was hijacked by a group of rebel Somali pirates. Captain Phillips examines the events that transpired on that fateful day in this intelligent geopolitical thriller, done so exquisitely by former legendary documentarian Paul Greengrass. While solidifying himself as a mainstream heavyweight with such action films as the Bourne series, Greengrass has made a name for himself as a master of realistic dramatizations with such portraits like the near-perfect reflection of the September 11 terrorist attacks in United 93. Captain Phillips is another fine example of breathtaking filmmaking that will leave the audience in shivers near the edge of their seats.

Tom Hanks plays the veteran merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips, and does so with a stark sense of unobtrusiveness and truth. What could have been a flashier character of great puffery and self-aware heroism, as in many other, less nuanced dramatizations, Hanks does the opposite with grounded restraint. Instead, Hanks lends the attention to the film’s secondary characters. Worth noting, Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the Somali pirate captain who takes Phillips hostage, commits tenfold to the film’s purity. The first-time actor is born to play the part. With his skeleton-like build and slack-jawed expressions, Muse is a silently commanding villain. Unlike the menacing and muscular physicality of Najee (Faysal Ahmed) and Elmi (Mahat Ali), Muse is a wild card with looks that do not match his wit, which makes him all the more dangerous. Although a natural businessman, Muse is a foot soldier in an intertwined pirate-ring funded by powerful investors. Treating it as a business proposition, expecting Phillips to call the ship’s company, which then would pay ransom from their insurance carrier, he knows he cannot return empty-handed. Mentioned in various points of the film, Muse reassures the captain, “Everything gonna be okay,” but as the drama shifts towards Phillips’ advantage, we suspect that he is trying to reassure himself that he isn’t in dire straits.

Tom Hanks

As the vessel gets hijacked, it’s apparent that the film becomes a battle of smarts, between those who want to get their way and those who know the way. Essentially, the ship breathes life as its own character. It’s massive; it’s a metropolis filled will levels and corners, hidden compartments only discernible to the crew members. When the camera pans back, as it does in so many action-filled moments, we see the vessel as a city of obstacles for the Somali villains, becoming all the more anxiously hopeful for our protagonists. It’s the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse, and we are never too sure who has the upper hand. We can only wait in anticipation for our heroes, and Greengrass knows exactly how to drown the audience in suspense.

Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd brilliantly propel the audience in the middle of the action, filming on the tight scope of the Aaton Penelope camera in 35-millimeter film, often sought-after for handheld cinematography and documentaries. Thus, every splash of the ocean from a jetting skiff, every panicked deliberation, every punch feels intensely visceral. 75% of Captain Phillips was shot over 60 days on the open water. Usually not sought out for direction, open waters are a gutsy choice for location, again enhancing the film’s realism. Re-enacting the event in conditions as close as possible to those in which occurred only magnifies the veracity of the film, which cannot be quantified. Intense filmmaking circumstances only makes for more enthralling filmgoing, and that’s something Paul Greengrass doesn’t shy away from at all.

There isn’t much wrongdoing in Captain Phillips. We go to the cinema to experience truth or be entertained, and Philips nails both with tension-cutting precision due to Greengrass’ brilliant investigate instinct and mastery of the thriller form. The course of events may not be totally accurate. In the words of Greengrass, “At the core of filming Phillips was the decision not to tell the same story of a hostage-rescue triumph that had been seen in news headlines.” Instead, what we get is a first-hand look at the strife for survival, and not through clichéd coincidences. We use blunt force, we think, we fear, and we make unlikely decisions with the crew of Alabama. Anything less would be subpar from what we would expect of Greengrass.  Make no mistake, though: despite the title and star power, this is not Hanks’ film. Infact, Hanks is more of a leading man when balanced with those around him, especially with the calming sternness of the ship’s second mate, Ken Quinn (Corey Johnson). It’s a broad ensemble piece and should be seen for its forest, not individual trees. For that, the film should not be titled Captain Phillips, but more adequately, should be seen as Maersk Alabama.   

– Christopher Clemente

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The New York Film Festival celebrates 51 years and runs from September 27 to October 13, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.




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