Although few will deny the talent of British raconteur Paul Greengrass, few still can deny that his brand comes with a definite caveat. After a string of solid films in the ’90s, Greengrass broke out in a big way with 2002’s Bloody Sunday, a docudrama account of the infamous 1972 “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Northern Ireland. Featuring kinetic editing and a filming style that seemingly immersed the viewer in the middle of the action, the film and its visionary director quickly caught Hollywood’s attention.
From there, Greengrass was given the reigns to the recently launched Bourne franchise with 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy. Bringing along his penchant for handheld camera work, rapid editing and a disregard for conventional establishing shots, Greengrass single-handedly advocated a new vocabulary for how action films could be shot (albeit, one that many have subsequently taken issue with, particularly in the wake of countless, inferior imitations).
Captain Phillips proves that, while his imitators may do more harm than good, Greengrass himself remains the kind filmmaker cinephiles are lucky to have around. Based on a 2009 incident in which a U.S. cargo ship and its captain were taken hostage by Somali pirates, the film marks Greengrass’ best work since 2006’s 9/11 drama United 93. What’s more, it’s the kind of film that will have you nervously biting your nails and holding your breath out of a sheer sense of suspense—and that’s even if you know how the true story unfolded.
The film opens, incidentally, in a similar vein to United 93. Just as in that film, where mundane activities were juxtaposed against the ominous preparations of terrorist hijackers, Captain Phillips finds its titular character, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), and his crew going about their daily, somewhat monotonous routine. Unbeknownst to them, a gang of Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi, in a breakthrough performance) watches from mere miles away, plotting a strike.
Phillips first becomes alarmed when he receives an email warning him of piracy in the area. Not long after, he spots Muse’s crew making their way to his ship. A defensive strategy fails, and the pirates find their way onto the ship. From here, the film divides itself into two distinct parts. The first sees Phillips attempting to stall the pirates as his crew, who have barricaded themselves in the ship’s lower depths, make plans for regaining control via traps and covert maneuvering that would make Home Alone’s Kevin McCallister proud.
Both this section and the film’s final third find Greegrass at the top of his game, ratcheting up the tension and playing his audience like Charlie Daniels plays a fiddle. In fact, if the film’s momentum stalls in any way, it comes in the middle act, where the pirates kidnap Phillips and take him aboard a lifeboat. Although Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd effectively capture the crushing claustrophobia of being trapped in such a confined space, certain sections can’t help but feel a tad overlong and dull. Then again, one could easily chalk this up to an attempt by Greengrass to communicate Phillips’ tedium and unease to the audience.
Moreover, while Captain Phillips remains very much a visual film, credit should also be given to screenwriter Billy Ray. As evidenced by his previous features, Shattered Glass and Breach, Ray possesses a natural affinity for imbuing character-centric true(-ish) stories with the kind of edge-of-your-seat suspense you’d normally find in a great thriller. This time around is no different, yet Ray also manages to craft several exchanges between Phillips and Muse that give the proceedings some authentic emotional reach.
Technical expertise aside, what separates this feature from the typical, run-of-the-mill docudrama is the talent in front of the camera. After his somewhat questionable accent work in Catch Me If You Can, one can be forgiven for being wary of Tom Hanks’ latest stab at a Boston cadence. And, yes, for the first portion of the movie, there’s an inevitable incongruity in seeing one of America’s biggest, most beloved movie stars as a decidedly blue-collar merchant mariner. The fact that Hanks, with the exception of a brief cameo by Catherine Keener as his wife, stands as the film’s only recognizable actor only adds to the potential “sore thumb” effect.
That being said, once the plot truly gets moving, Hanks gamely disappears into the role, giving perhaps his most powerful performance since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Using his inherent movie star prowess, Hanks is able to embody both Phillips’ authoritative nature as well as successfully sell his cool-headed approach to the situation. Much of the film’s latter half, meanwhile, is predicated on his reactions and interactions with the pirates as well as his growing desperation. Watching the slow, quiet erosion of Phillips’ composure proves only slightly more harrowing than the film’s suspenseful set pieces. The character’s emotional arc eventually builds to a scene that, without spoiling anything, is so potent and raw that you almost can’t stand to watch because Hanks endows the moment with such an aching sense of reality.
Going up against this powerhouse performance by a Hollywood legend, Barkhad Abdi, an unknown with only this film to his credit, more than holds his own. Though Greengrass and Cyrus never cheapen the realism of their film by turning Muse into a sympathetic character, Abdi brings enough subtle shading to the role that, while you can never quite empathize with his actions, you do at least understand why he’s driven to them.
Tense and draining, Captain Phillips stands as one of the year’s most harrowing, yet ultimately rewarding movie-going experiences. In the wake of an underwhelming summer that yielded little fruit, the one-two punch of this film and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity makes for an exciting gateway into awards season. All in all, although it may be take place on rough waters and feature an exuberant amount of shaky camera work, Captain Phillips is a damn fine example of smooth, clear-eyed sailing.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener
Release Date: Oct. 11, 2013