Paul Greengrass is back. Another docudrama to lead the year in movies.
"If the pirates find you, remember, you know the ship. They don't."
– Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks)
It’d be quite an experience to meet Captain Phillips the person, or at least that’s what “Captain Phillips” the movie has led me to believe. He’s rendered in a way that, simply put, is human. And even if he isn’t a true hero, the writing has convinced me of such. He doesn’t plan on saving the world, let alone his ship, but he probably doesn’t know that saving his ship is something he’ll do rather innately. If there were a more beautiful, concise way to describe it, it’d be a few early clips of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks). Even before he experiences actual danger, his natural fear leads him to go above and beyond the ground rules of heading a ship. He’s prepared for the worst, and maybe he’s the only one aboard who is. I doubt there’s much worse than what comes about: the crew has hardly prepared for the drill they are undergoing when a band of Somali pirates are aboard and enacting their savagery.
The two questions at hand are, “Do the Somalis have a plan?” and, “How good is Phillips’s plan?” Regardless, there’s no answer that can stop the danger that’s aboard.
Captain Phillips takes the approach we last saw in director Paul Greengrass’s 9/11 docudrama (United 93). That was seven years ago, and he’s only improved since on his ability to show weakness and fear from both sides. Hanks tries to stay calm the whole time, as do the pirates. We feel misery for the Somalis, indeed, and we see bits of the story from their eyes. I’m once again surprised that no controversy has come about for Greengrass’s unhesitating sympathy for the antagonists. (I’m also glad.) The story is mainly seen from the perspective of Captain Phillips, as one might guess. Where we can sympathize in moderation with the Somalis, we’re dying for a cathartic relief in Hanks’s character.
The movie coheres as an emotional, intense docudrama. I am writing this review on November 2nd; having seen Carrie on its second day and Gravity on its sixth day, both with near-empty theaters, it’s a pleasant surprise to be able to see that three weeks in Captain Phillips was almost sold out. Such is thoroughly deserved. The movie may be as authentic as movies will ever present real life. Part of this is due to the technical department. If you ever could hear a pin drop, it’s because the ship’s floor is heard creaking very faintly, not because of dead silence. The use of lighting is rarely ever in false technique; in fact, maybe it was all naturally lit. It’s an uncommon and admirable choice, but if it was effective in The Fugitive, it was groundbreaking in Captain Phillips.
I’d wager that there’s nothing Hollywooden here. Even the cast is almost entirely unheard of. There’s one exception, of course: among the rest of them is Tom Hanks. He looks nothing like the real Phillips, but he makes him feel real with his intuitive, patient transformation. There’s nothing here blaring the Tom Hanks we know, the Actor Worth Millions of Dollars in Scientific Notation. You’d find much different characters in anything he’s done, even in his best movies. Just glance at the ’90s. Philadelphia? Nope. Forrest Gump, not at all. As for his character in Saving Private Ryan, there’s a fascinating polar opposite to the titular character in Captain Phillips. Here we have a character so selfless, he almost forgets he exists in his compassion toward others. Even though his well being is threatened throughout the movie, the one thing he ever does for his own sake is ask for water, near the climax.
Captain Phillips depicts and is a remarkable feat. The script is Oscar-worthy. It’s as if written by someone who suffered the situation Phillips did, not someone who adapted Phillips’s book about the situation. Screenwriter Billy Ray throws us into a state where we could only hope the danger ends. The movie is an entirely unpredictable nail-biter. To keep that in the greatest certainty, I ask that if you do not already know in detail of the events that occur in this movie, please do not research. It’s the easiest way to liberate one’s self from some of celluloid’s best two hours in 2013.
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