“Siri, how do I deal with Somali pirates!?” – “Cap… that’s not an iPhone”
When I heard this project was in development, I made a conscious effort to avoid reading up on the events Captain Phillips portrays. I have mild (okay, extreme) spoilerphobia towards some things, going so far as tranquilizing my brother with a blowgun I keep on me at all times when he starts talking about movies I haven’t seen. I believed not knowing what will happen next would make Captain Phillips just that much better. Coming out of the theater, I realized that that really didn’t matter, as Greengrass has mastered the art of suspense. To use a half-assed analogy, you know a guitar string will snap if you keep tightening it, but that doesn’t stop your heart from quickening with every turn. It’s hard not to compare it to last year’s Argo. Both films were based on well-known events, yet are incredibly tense despite the pre-determined outcome.
Paul Greengrass uses the signature directorial style he established in his Bourne films to great effect here. He keeps the camera close, planting the seeds of claustrophobia, and avoids using a steady-cam, making us feel as though we’re in the POV of a character in the scene. This makes some of the shots shaky, but the action is never confusing. Tom Hanks, in typical fashion, turns in a great performance as the titular Captain. He starts out authoritative, cool and collected, and remains calm and level-headed as the pirates seize the ship. As the situation becomes more unstable and uncertain, however, Hanks visibly becomes more nervous, desperate and scared. The journey he takes us on ends with a terrific final scene that will no doubt win him some deserved Oscar-buzz.
Surprisingly, we get nearly as much screen time with Muse, the leader of the Somali pirates (played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi), as we do with Captain Phillips, both before and during the hijacking. Although Muse and his cohorts, each of whom has their own distinct personality, aren’t fully characterized, they still become much more than faceless assailants. They have lives beyond this act of piracy, giving us some welcome insight into their motivations and encouraging a modicum of sympathy, at least for the pirate captain (though I may be a bit biased due to Muse’s kick-ass name). I wish the film had delved just a little deeper into the pirates’ backgrounds, but the movie doesn’t suffer for this element.
With its excellent pacing and the masterful building of suspense, Captain Phillips will have you clutching your armrest and forgetting to breathe through much of its 134-min runtime. If you’re looking for a tense, dramatically satisfying thriller, hop aboard with Captain Phillips.