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There may not be a more intense or emotional fifteen minutes than the end of Captain Phillips. The “based on true events” movie shows that with a smart director and good acting a thriller need not be an edge of your seat ride throughout. Captain Phillips is a well crafted and acted thriller that will take you by surprise.
Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93) made a very wise decision to make this feel like a very natural and balanced movie. The movie’s pacing, for the most part, is perfect as he allows the movie to build from a seemingly innocuous, and somewhat preachy, opening car ride into a gripping standoff by the end of the movie. He isn’t afraid to allow the movie to slow down in parts to allow the tension to be built back up. It feels as though nearly everything in the movie builds off of whatever has happened previously, giving the movie a very natural feel.
Greengrass’s decision to film the movie “documentary” style – the over the shoulder shaky camera technique – only heightens the natural sensation of the movie. And while this style of filming does make it feel more “real” it never becomes too jarring to take the audience out of the movie.
For everything that Greengrass does, however, the movie would be nothing without Tom Hanks or his costar Barkhad Abdi. Hanks gives a good performance as the even keeled Captain Phillips. It is fairly subtle until the ending but he does imbue a sense of genuineness, despite his relatively cool head throughout this extraordinary situation. Abdi plays Phillips’s main captor Muse, a complex character who is both understanding and menacing. Abdi gives Muse an air of almost naiveté as his mantra throughout is that “everything is going to be ok.” Muse is very much a product of his environment but neither Greengrass or Abdi allow the character to go to realm of cliché ham-fistedness. Greengrass allows the audience to discover how they should feel about all the characters by not allowing their stories to become melodrama.
It is also clear the parallel Greengrass draws between Phillips and Muse. They both get their own introductions in the beginning of the movie. Both are captains just doing their jobs in order to make a living. Both are worried about their financial futures as they chase the American dream – Muse going so far to say that once he gets the ransom money he will move to America and buy a car. And while Muse’s actions are deplorable there is a powerful exchange between Phillips and Muse while on the lifeboat trying to reach the African coast. Phillips tells Muse that there surely must be another option for employment outside of being a fisherman or a pirate. Muse replies by saying maybe there is in America.
Including the aforementioned examples, the movie has an undertone running throughout critiquing capitalism, corporations, and the delusion of the American dream. In the not so veiled dialogue when the audience is first introduced to Phillips he tells his wife that when he first started out he could keep his head down and be promoted to captain but now corporations want everything better and faster as he talks about how competitive the workplace has become. Muse later echoes that sentiment as he is telling Phillips that his boss, a Somali warlord, expects big cash returns and that is why he had to take Phillips hostage as opposed to leaving the cargo ship with just the $30,000 the ship had stored in the safe. Whether it is the crewmember of the cargo ship saying he’s a union member and isn’t paid enough to risk his life fighting off pirates or the fact that Muse gets excited by the prospect of stealing a cargo ship too big for his crew of four the movie makes sure to weigh in on capitalistic dreams.
Despite the movie being about ten minutes too long, the movie’s final act is incredible. Hanks finishes off his subdued performance with something emotionally jarring. Once Phillips is saved he is taken to a medical cabin on a Navy ship where he gets examined by a Navy doctor. He is so clearly in shock, almost every emotion seems to be emitted all at once from his body. And Hanks makes you feel everything he feels as if he had gone through the trauma himself. It doesn’t feel ham-fisted or like too much, it’s pure emotional connection between the character and the viewer that happens so rarely in movies. There is something about Hanks’s performance where he tries to be as even keeled as possible that when he finally allows himself an emotional release it is shocking and devastating and gripping.
At its surface Captain Phillips seems like you’re typical “ripped from the headlines” affair. In it Hollywood gets a chance to glorify a real world hero, and not one from the land of colored cells and talking bubbles. And while it clearly is a dramatization, especially in the midst of reports from crew members saying the real life Captain Phillips wasn’t nearly as heroic, the movie features some shrewd directorial choices and two very good performances that make Captain Phillips both a thrilling and affecting movie.