Back in 2006, I had to make one of the toughest calls I’ve grappled with on a Top 10 List. (My life is really hard, okay?) Would my #1 film of the year be Paul Greengrass’ gripping, devastating docu-thriller United 93, taking on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or Alfonso Cuaron’s gritty and equally gripping sci-fi thriller Children Of Men?
Tough call. United 93 looked back at a recent horrific event that had a massive impact on an entire generation. Children Of Men looked forward, presenting a bleak glimpse at a future that felt unfortunately plausible, especially in a post-9/11 world. They were two of the most intense cinematic viewing experiences I’d ever had, and remain as such. Either would be a top contender for my #1 in most of the years since, since they’re stronger films than many of my favorites from other years. Ultimately, though, I had to go with United 93, because the story it told was true, the world was still sensitive about the events of that day, and it was handled both delicately and unflinchingly. It provided a much-needed catharsis, though not exactly one that left audiences feeling good. It’s practically unimaginable to think of being on one of those planes, but United 93 forced us to be there. It was too much for some, but for me it was an important reminder of the smaller-scale aspects of something that become so hugely, sadly profound.
Flash forward to 2013, and it’s a similar story. Cuaron and Greengrass have released major movies within a week of each other. (United 93 and Children Of Men were released several months apart, though — the former in spring and the latter in late December.) Again, Cuaron’s film is essentially a fantasy — a totally immersive one, with jaw-dropping cinematography (and another surprisingly early exit for a major movie star). Meanwhile, Greengrass tells another harrowing true story about a hijacking using his typical documentary-like camerawork, which provides a more a realistic experience than the typical Hollywood thriller.
I mentioned last week that Gravity was likely my favorite film of 2013 thus far — and was wondering, slightly, if Greengrass would again provide stiff competition for Cuaron as the year’s best filmmaker. Captain Phillips is a slick and competent thriller that has a whole lot in common with United 93. It’s based on recent events involving a small group of men who take over a large vessel filled with a lot of unarmed, innocent people. The events are certainly frightening, as Greengrass’ documentary-like filmmaking puts us right there with the captives. Ultimately, though, what happened to these people is no 9/11, so the film doesn’t have that built-in emotional resonance. (Spoiler for real life alert: it ends much more happily.) So while I can recommend Captain Phillips for anyone who enjoys a tense thriller, I can’t say that it delivers much more than solid entertainment. That’s not a complaint — just an assurance that Cuaron and Gravity don’t have anything to worry about this year — at least, not on my list.
Tom Hanks stars as Richard Phillips, the titular captain of a ship transporting cargo through dangerous international waters east of Africa. (He dusts off his Boston accent again, which isn’t as distracting as I thought it’d be. Still, I’m not sure it was necessary.) The film begins at his home in Vermont, where he and his wife Andrea discuss changing global politics in a way that feels rather on-the-nose given what’s going to happen. (Andrea is played by Catherine Keener, whose incredibly brief appearance couldn’t add up to much more than a day’s work, unless her other scenes were cut.) Greengrass films tend to be fairly sparse in the moralizing and monologuing, so this scene stands out, though it’s the only one that feels so scripted.
We also spend more time than you’d think with the Somali pirates, watching as they form their crews. Barkhad Abdi plays their leader, Muse, a skinny guy with bad teeth capable of both sympathy and savagery. The film takes its time before the pirates actually climb aboard, but it’s all filled with very real dread about what the hell these unarmed men are supposed to do in such a predicament. They’re basically sitting ducks, which makes us wonder why there aren’t more security measures available to them. Captain Phillips pulls a few nifty tricks out of his sleeve, but ultimately, this crew is no match for four guys with guns. (If you’re unaware of the real-life events and want to remain that way before seeing the movie, abandon ship now.)
Ultimately, Captain Phillips is taken as a solo hostage in the lifeboat (as shown in some trailers, so minor spoiler there). A significant amount of the film takes place on this craft, so this is really Hanks’ show, and he delivers a dynamic performance throughout, though the final five minutes of the movie are his real showstopper. Like United 93, Captain Phillips pays more attention to the individual personalities of “the bad guys” than you might expect, and the complicated dynamics of that group are intriguing and help to keep the suspense alive. Muse is more level-headed than the others, though ultimately too naive for his own good. (Good thing for Richard Phillips.) We’re not likely to feel much pity for these pirates, but the film does a good job at humanizing them rather than making them cartoon mustache-twirlers with no real motives or inner lives. We can clearly see that these are desperate men with few options, and most of them truly don’t wish to hurt anybody. It’s about as sensitive a look at Somali pirates as we’re likely to get, even when we’re far from rooting for them.
In the end, Captain Phillips is a rah-rah America story, with the mighty U.S. Navy triumphing against the scrappy dark people. Muse reminds the Americans that “we’re not al Qaeda” on multiple occasions, but of course, any foreigner who threatens the life of an innocent American is no better in the eyes of a Navy SEAL. Gearing up toward the climax, Greengrass gives us many loving shots of Navy SEALs in action, including one oddly fawning shot of these buff dudes changing uniforms. (It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from Michael Bay, not Paul Greengrass.) While real-life events played out roughly as depicted here, and the Navy surely did a fine job at extracting Captain Phillips from a potentially deadly situation, Greengrass’ Navy worship is a bit heavy-handed. The SEALs portrayed as almost superhuman, which is at odds with the gravity of the rest of the film. These inexperienced Somali pirates are clearly no match, so it becomes a matter of when rather than if Captain Phillips will be rescued. The man does his best, but ultimately he can’t do much besides wait to be rescued by a handful of heroes whose names we never learn.
As in United 93, very little attention is paid to side characters, which feels both realistic and distancing. The supporting cast is populated by unknown actors who seem like they really could be the crew of this ship. We care enough to not want to see them shot by Somali pirates, but it might’ve been nice to get to know some of them before they’re placed in jeopardy. The movie is called Captain Phillips (seriously, there wasn’t a better title for this?), and it’s really only Captain Phillips who matters. He’s Tom Hanks, America’s male sweetheart, after all. There is, perhaps, a slightly sadder tale to be told about these four Somali men who basically just didn’t know better, so easily dispatched in the name of American justice; then again, they’re pirates, and this is typically what happens to uneducated men who try to make off with a lot of money that doesn’t belong to them. It’s not ultimately the politics of this movie that are unsettling, but the politics of the world at large, and who can fault Greengrass for that?
Captain Phillips is an involving but not totally nail-biting suspense thriller. Once he’s alone with the pirates, we have a pretty good idea of how this will shake out — it’s based on the man’s book, after all, and you just do not kill Tom Hanks — though watching it unfold remains entertaining. Despite the workmanlike approach to the rest of the movie, the resolution is surprisingly effective, with one of the best post-rescue scenes of relief I’ve seen in a movie. (A moment that will likely get Hanks an Oscar nomination, depending on the competition.) It sends the movie out on a high note, though it also made me wish that what happened earlier packed an equivalent punch to the gut.
It’s not amongst the Top 5 movies of the year, but that scene certainly is one of the year’s best. And anyway, it’s effective enough to ensure I won’t go for a sea cruise anywhere near Somali in the near future — unless I had to choose between that and spinning off into outer space.
You win this round, Cuaron. But good show, Greengrass.
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