Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

December 19, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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To be honest, I wasn’t really all that interested in Captain Phillips, which depicts the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates in 2009. I dunno, maybe I had been put off by pirates because of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (there may actually be an element of truth that joke), or perhaps it was because it looked like another boring a Oscar bait. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Captain Phillips is, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling and captivating movies of the year.

As always, if you don’t know about the Maersk Alabama hijacking then don’t read up about it before you go watch the movie. First of all, it’s best not knowing how the story ends, and secondly, you won’t be distracted by any of the creative liberties taken by the filmmakers. I went into it not knowing anything about it at all other than that it’s based on a true story, and as a result I was glued to the screen for the entire 133-minute running time, which didn’t feel one bit overlong at all.

To just give a basic background of the premise, the film tells the story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama who took orders to sail through the Gulf of Aden to Mombasa with aide cargo. The ship gets hijacked by a band of Somali pirates, who take Phillips hostage for ransom and sets off a major international incident. It’s an extraordinary story of bravery and survival, one that I’m sure has been at least a little embellished and sped up for the purposes of the movie, but I have no problems with that at all because it worked. Apart from a brief intro, Captain Phillips is intense all the way through, rarely easing up to give audiences time to take a breather. The sense of dread is real, the fear of danger is genuine, and the action feels authentic without being not over-the-top. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking considering that almost all of it takes place on the sea, and in nothing more than a couple of boats, and yet it’s far more exciting than many films that follow characters to multiple locations all around the world.

I’ve been a fan and critic of director Paul Greengrass, who directed two of the Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum) as well as the underrated war movie Greenzone. I like the way he handles his action sequences but I’m not a fan of his trademark handheld camera. In Captain Phillips, however, it feels as though Greengrass held back on the queasy-cam sequences, and even the scenes where the handheld cameras were more obvious were almost fitting because they were on the rocky seas.

As for the performances, I expected an Oscar-nominated one from Tom Hanks, which he delivers, but I was equally impressed by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who has nabbed a Golden Globe as the lead pirate and I think deserves an Oscar nod too. You would think as a hostage Hanks won’t get to show off his acting chops as much, but he’s so solid as the stoic but clearly terrified captain and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off the role the way he did. Adbi, on the other hand, is brilliant as the young leader of the pirates, who is frightening and vulnerable at the same time. All of the newcomers who play the pirates are terrific — they are the bad guys but you almost don’t want anything to happen to them — but Adbi is the one who stands out the most because of his screen presence.

In all, I was very impressed by Captain Phillips. It ticks all the right boxes — riveting plot, thrilling action, just the right amount of political intrigue and well-developed characters backed by top performances. A smart, intense and highly enjoyable film.

4.5 stars out of 5