Friday, May 23, 2014

Captain Phillips

Directed by Paul Greengrass.
2013. Rated PG-13, 134 minutes.
Tom Hanks
Barkhad Abdi
Catherine Keener
Faysal Ahmed
Chris Mulkey
Michael Chernus
David Warshofsky
Yul Vazquez
Corey Johnson
Max Martini

Captain Phillips is leading a cargo ship full of food and other supplies around the horn of Africa to be delivered in Mombasa. Also roaming the same waters is a band of Somali pirates. They are led by Abduwali Muse, also known as Skinny. Despite the best efforts of the captain and his crew, Skinny and his buddies manage to get on board. Phillips tries to keep his crew safe while Skinny efforts to get his hands on whatever treasures the ship may hold.

Very early on the director manages to create a great deal of tension. He does this first by making us aware of the apprehension Cpt. Phillips has about the task at hand. Hanks is a great help in this area, subtly conveying his feelings with his face and the tone of his voice more so than through the dialogue he's speaking. In a masterful performance, he carries this tactic throughout. director Paul Greengrass and his crew return the favor by framing the actor's face in an emotionally suggestive manner. He also does this with our villain. Skinny's unwavering gaze is met by the camera's refusal to back away. The combination is powerful, endowing Skinny with a thoroughly compelling intensity.

The intensity of our bad guy is one of the major tools Greengrass uses to accomplish the movie's biggest feat. That feat is taking the tension he creates early and not only maintaining it, but gradually increasing it throughout. There never really is a moment where we think the situation is under control. As things get progressively worse, we fear they will go irredeemably wrong at any moment. This is no easy task considering that many viewers will come in to the movie with at least some knowledge of the story and it's outcome. However, Greengrass knows that the devil is in the details. He uses them to fray our edges and bring our bottoms halfway off the front of our seats.

Another effective tactic in maintaining and ratcheting it up is, ironically, not doing something at all. That something is cutting away to the captain's wife to watch her wring her hands. Doing this would likely have sucked all the air out of the balloon. Instead, she's introduced early so we know that she exists and Captain Phillips definitely has someone worried sick about him. Our idea of what must be going through her head, or what's going on in our own heads for that matter, is far greater than any physical performance of this could hope to be. In this case, less is more. The same principal applies to the characters involved in trying to help our hero. Rather than being bogged down with learning about these people, which would only serve to muddy up the plot and dissolve that precious tension, they show up and work on the task at hand without show stopping, attention grabbing moments, just the way the real military does it. Everything feeds our anxiety over how this will play out.

Narratively, this is a sharply focused piece of cinema that almost never veers from trying to jangle our nerves. It is highly successful doing just that. The genius part of it all is that it starts long before our bad guys board the captain's ship. Since it persists from wire to wire, we're stuck trying to roll with the punches, but having a hard time getting out of the way. In this case, that's a good thing. It keeps us engaged, bracing ourselves for the next development. Hanks protrays Phillips as a wise, grizzled vet of the sea, yet still "everyman" enough for us to relate to and empathize with him. On the other end of the spectrum is Barkhad Abdi. He plays Skinny as a guy whose smart, cold, calculating, fully aware of his slight build and (over)compensating for it with an easily detectable strength. It's what gives him some form of control over his crew. Watching the back and forth between these two guys with life and death hanging on every word is fascinating theater.


  1. Good review Dell. Tense about the whole way through. Even when it ended.

    1. Extremely tense. I was riveted throughout. Thanks!