‘Captain Phillips’ is an Intense and Haunting Experience

By Will Ashton | wa054010@ohiou.edu| @thewillofash
Captain Phillips
| Directed by Paul Greengrass| Rated PG-13
RATING: 3.5/5

captain-phillips-domestic-posterThe bridge between real life events and cinematic recreation has always been a bumpy one. Ultimately, in recreating the events that were so haunting or captivating in real life, many films often lose the one thing that made the stories themselves stand out: their reality.

Thankfully, Captain Phillips does not fall into this trap. It is an intense, gripping film that, despite audiences knowing what is going to happen, is able to make the majority of its running time compelling and engaging.

Above all else, director Paul Greengrass has demonstrated a great talent for making narrative films feel documentary-realistic. With his two installments to the Bourne series, Supremacy and Ultimatum, and United 93, Greengrass elevated his status as a filmmaker and his knack for creating intense, engaging action-drama-thrillers. And, in telling the story of the Somali pirate attack of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama, that authenticity is brought out front-and-center.

Playing the title character, Tom Hanks leads a committed yet reserved cast, whose naturalistic performances make this recreation feel real. In fact, this may be the most reserved performance Hanks has given in his whole career. Not that he has ever been known for going too over-the-topThe Ladykillers notwithstanding— but his nuanced, controlled performance is quite different than his typical mainstream affair. In the film’s final moments, however, Hanks is able to provide one of his most emotionally gripping and haunting sequences of acting to date.

In addition to Hanks, newcomers Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman, who star as the film’s primary Somali pirates, are able to bring a sense of dynamic naturalism to their performances, much like Hanks. But, at the same time, these actors, especially in their untrained ways, are able to bring a level of unpredictability to their performances that make their actions throughout the film all the more terrifying. 

What really makes the film work so well, at least as a thriller, is its pacing. Rarely does the film ever feel the need to racket down its tension. While the film is a little over two hours, it doesn’t often feel its length, at least not in the first act. When the film makes the distinct transition from first to second act, things often grow a bit repetitive in nature. The film’s decision to pull in its strong-minded political discussions, while certainly welcomed, does hurt the film’s ongoing sense of tension and pace.

Major props are to be given to the film’s editing, done by Christopher Rouse. The Greengrass regular is able to keep the action feeling constant and free-flowing, and its fluid nature helps make the realistic transition to screen feel just like that.

There’s a level of depth to this film that many filmmakers wouldn’t like to cross involving the nature of class and how our environments ultimately plays a role in what becomes of our lives. But, beyond this constant theme, the characters in the film are surprising a bit flat. Beyond a description that could fit on one side of a note-card, Greengrass’ characters are not all that deep or drawn out. This ultimately hurts the film in that it makes the themes that he wishes to address not as effective as he wishes.

Additionally, the film’s occasionally stilted dialogue, written by screenwriter Billy Ray, hurts the film’s sense of realism that is realized through its expert direction.  That’s not to say that he wrote a bad script, by any means. But, much like Gravity, a quick script polish could have benefited this film to the dialogue.

Captain Phillips may not make it to my top 10 list at the end of the year, as it will for a number of critics, but it will go down as one of the best thrillers that I have seen in 2013. A constantly engaging and thrilling film, Greengrass’ film is an entertaining, yet powerful, recreation of recent headline events.

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