I’ve always felt like I was waiting to like Paul Greengrass as a director. Part of it might be how much I liked Bloody Sunday, but the rest is honestly that I think he’s quite talented. He’s got a good eye for composition, he usually chooses good screenplays and (when he can avoid going overboard with the shakycam shit) he’s usually got some good cinematography. But his choice of material and his presentation on it have always been kind of uneven (the best example of this is still Green Zone.) But with the trend of making real life event movies into big action/thriller films, I think Greengrass might have finally found groove, and made one of the best movies of his career.
The plot is one you already know, at least if you were remotely paying attention to the news at all in 2009. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is the Captain of a cargo freighter, set to deliver its cargo in and around the horn of Africa. In the waters off of Somalia, they are hijacked by pirates, led by Abudwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi). The pirates, after a brief standoff on the ship, wind up fleeing the freighter in the lifeboat, with Captain Phillips as a hostage.
And that’s…sort of it. That’s not a complaint mind, one of the things I really like about this film is its incredibly tight focus on the event it’s depicting. After an incredibly abbreviated opening on land (which does a good job of contrasting the lives of Muse and Phillips) the film remains entirely fixed on the actual event. No cuts to the news covering it or to his family wringing their hands in front of the TV screen or to a politician demanding it be resolved. Hell, for a good portion of the 3rd act, the movie barely even leaves the lifeboat. That’s a hard thing to pull off, but it finds a way, and it retains that focus as much as possible throughout.
That focus is zeroed in squarely in on the dynamic between Muse and Phillips, and it’s an interesting dynamic. The film is smart enough, or rather trusts us to be smart enough, that it doesn’t feel the need to spell out that Muse’s life is miserable but what he’s doing is wrong, and doesn’t feel the need to spell out the morals. No, it’s much more interested in examining the cat and mouse game between them, as Phillips (and eventually his crew and the Navy) try to outsmart Muse and his heavily armed group without anyone getting killed.
A lot of that dynamic is on the two leads to sell and they’re both excellent. It’s been easy, in recent years, to forget why Tom Hanks was a big deal, due to his choice of film roles for a while there. But as this, and last year’s Cloud Atlas (which all of you still need to go see) proved, he is actually an excellent actor when he’s given the right part, and he’s pretty damned excellent here. And Barkhad Abdi is a major find. It takes a special kind of talent to be called upon, in your first film role, to act head-to-head with a two time Oscar winner, and what’s even more impressive is that he pulls it off. I don’t want to spoil some of the choices he makes with this role, but trust me, if he’s up for Best Supporting Actor this year I won’t be surprised.
If the movie has a major flaw it’s that the tight focus on Muse and Phillips eventually takes its toll on the rest of the characters. Oh it’s all well written and well directed and all of the dialogue feels natural enough, and some of the characters (mostly Muse’s pirates and a couple of Phillip’s crew members) do get some good character moments, but they begin to feel thin or one dimensional after a while. This works for some of them, like the Navy SEALs who are treated less like characters and more like the wrath of god, once their involved there’s no question of what’s going to happen. But some of them feel a little too nailed into one character trait which is a little disappointing. Oh and there’s the usual bitching about historical accuracy, but I couldn’t give less of a shit.
Regardless of that flaw, Captain Phillip is indeed as good as its trailers made it look, easily one of the best things in theaters (aside from Gravity) and probably one of the better movies of Greengrass’ career and the year overall. I’m increasingly fond of this trend of making historical event movies into action movies or thrillers and as long as the movies keep being this good, I think it’ll stay that way.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he kept expecting the youngest pirate to say “Tousle my hair Mr. Hanks.”