Monday, October 14, 2013

Let's Review Something: Captain Phillips

I want you to close your eyes (not really, because then you couldn’t read this) and imagine something for a moment.  A weathered Bruce Willis sips his coffee while chatting up a group of young, muscle bound actors as they stare out at the open sea.  Just as calm is setting in over the group, Willis sounds the alarms because there are pirates approaching.  Next, we see Will Smith stagger into view as he wields a gun and tries his hardest to win an Oscar by talking with an uneven accent.  He demands money, and lots of it, and next thing you know there is an all-out war as these seaman tear off their shirts, exposing their pulsating chest muscles, and race throughout the ship, taking out pirates left and right.  Willis, who appeared old and weathered on the outset, turns out to be in better shape than he’s ever been in his life and the finale centers on a meticulously choreographed fight sequence between him and Will Smith where he spews some one-liners and winds up single handedly rewriting history.

I shudder at the thought of what this movie would have turn into, had someone like Michael Bay directed it.

Thankfully, we don’t really have to think much about that, since Michael Bay did NOT direct this.  Paul Greengrass did, and while Greengrass has had his fair-share of directing action films (those Bourne sequels), he’s done so with grit and class, and he’s also managed to formulate some really interesting ‘adult’ films (‘United 93’ still makes a serious impact on me).  He’s smart, and he understands that creating tension does not have to revolve around the obvious.

‘Captain Phillips’ snuck up on me.  I was walking into this with some intrigue but little expectation.  The reviews were strong, but I hadn’t really read any of them.  I only knew of their status through word of mouth.  My biggest hesitation drew from the fact that Tom Hanks is an actor I just don’t get.  He’s attained this reputation in the industry as one of the greatest actors to ever live, and yet I’ve been largely underwhelmed by his career.  I consider his two Oscar wins to be two of the worst in the history of the Oscars, and I just, as a whole, don’t find him very compelling.  That isn’t to say that I’ve never liked him, for I have on occasion (his ease and naturalness in ‘That Thing You Do’ was a great moment for him), but overall I just don’t care for him.  So, to hear that this is his career best didn’t mean much to me; at the time.

Now that I’ve seen the film I have to say that I’m speechless as to the power he brings to EVERY moment of this performance, and those final twenty minutes are some of the best acting I’ve ever seen put to film, by anyone.

The film tells the true story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, a US cargo ship sailing to bring supplies to Africa.  While passing through Somalia waters they are hijacked by Somali pirates.  The danger of pirates had become a real thing over the past few months, and it was something that Captain Phillips was aware of and cautious about, but it wasn’t anything any of them were really prepared for (it had never happened to an American ship before).  Just when it seemed like they had avoided the worst, one persistent pirate by the name of Muse winds up getting aboard the ship, and from there things take a drastic turn.

I have to admit that I was really unaware of a lot of this story.  I remember when it happened, but I don’t remember the details and so some of the shifts in this film and the plot details took me by surprise, in a good way.  For over two hours, this film had me trying desperately to breathe.  By the end, I was literally shaking in my seat.  The intensity level of this film is hard for me to describe, but I told my wife when we left (who was sobbing by the end of the film) that I had never felt like that while watching a movie.  It isn’t the same feeling of intensity when watching a scary film or an average adventure epic.  There was such brutal honesty to each frame that the heightened empathy felt for Captain Phillips was something I almost couldn’t bare up under.  Watching his plight felt almost too real, too authentic.

His emotional breakdown (“Can you see this?”) is choking me up right now, just thinking about it.

This has already been a great year for film, and ‘Captain Phillips’ is up there at the top.  It fuses genres together with precision yet an ease that makes the whole thing feel genuine, never forced.  The action is there, but the intensity of the film transcends that aspect and really lives and breathes in the moments (and large segments) where the action is non-existent.  The dedicated performances by the entire cast, but more notably by Hanks and Abdi, really bring an earnest authenticity to this film.  I said to my wife when we left the theater that I had NEVER seen fear so honestly depicted on film than while watching Tom Hanks react to the pirate intruders.  Greengrass’s decision to keep the American cast from meeting the African actors before filming began was a smart choice, for it added an authenticity you can’t fake.

You mean you're a real person, with real world problems? 
Another thing I really appreciated about this film, and something that I think should be noted, is that the treatment of the pirates was very astute.  Muse, while terrifying, has an actual arc (however subtle it may be) and helps create a well-rounded portrayal of the truth.  While their actions are never condoned, you can sense a personal desperation, and when Phillips pleads with visible anger (“You’re not just a fisherman!”) you can sense a backstory that holds Muse to his profession and his course of action.  Like he said, he’s gone too far now.

This has become the biggest surprise of my ‘film year’ so far, and I’m ecstatic at how excellent this film really is.  Technically perfect, with a pitch perfect cast and a resounding finale that will lift your spirits but never in a heavy handed way (such devastating honesty), this is a film you CANNOT MISS!

I give this a solid A, verging on an A+ (I’m aching to take back my reckless ‘masterpiece’ labeling) and in all honesty by the end of the year it may achieve that ‘+’.  Oscar pundits are already rallying behind this one, and how great it is to actually have some seriously great movies looking like Oscar frontrunners!  After seeing the film, I don’t see how Hanks misses Lead Actor.  If he didn’t already have two, I’d say he was our likely winner.  Those final twenty minutes are BRILLIANT, and his final scene will have everyone sobbing like a fool.  Besides Lead Actor though, Picture, Screenplay, Director, Sound, Score and Cinematography are all possible.  A lot of speculation has been made over the possibility of Barkhad Abdi sneaking into Supporting Actor.  I call category fraud (he’s clearly co-lead and has his own private screen time and individual arc) but I can see how he stands no chance in the Lead category.  This ‘could’ happen (a Supporting nomination) if the film overperforms, but for an unknown in a crowded category, it’s unlikely.  He’s great in the film, so a nomination would be deserved (as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of James Gandolfini).


  1. Great review! I glanced at the AW forums and was pleasantly surprised when I saw your updated ballot. :)

    I loved it as well, and it's also in my top 5 right now. Hanks is brilliant, and I actually think he could win, given that phenomenal breakdown scene. He doesn't need it, but neither did Jack Nicholson nor Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is just so good! It was so tense, and it never let up. I can't wait to see it again!

    Re: Barkhad Abdi. I've got him in supporting, but lead is a legit placement. Could be category fraud on my part, but oh well.

    1. Hanks is certainly in the running. I just think it will be an uphill battle. 1997 was a really weak year in this category, especially from Oscar's ballot, and they loved 'As Good as it Gets'. Daniel Day-Lewis took EVERYTHING last year, and the role itself was just so damn baity. Hanks has amazing ink, and that harrowing last twenty minutes, but he also has a much stronger and stacked category and a few people with equally strong reviews and stronger narratives

    2. Hanks definitely has a tougher road, but he could end up winning. I wonder: if the film gets 8 or more nominations, what does it win? I don't see it getting shut out like True Grit did a few years ago. Best Actor seems like the most obvious place to reward it, especially with Gravity taking a lot of techs and potentially Best Picture and Director.