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Early Buzz: Paul Greengrass' 'Captain Phillips' Is An Unbelievably Tense Real World Thriller; Politics Questionable

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist September 6, 2013 at 5:04PM

"It's like the last half hour of 'Zero Dark Thirty' but for the whole movie." That was someone's description of "Captain Phillips" when we quizzed them about the film earlier today. The film, which stars Tom Hanks as the titular captain of the Maersk Alabama, a ship that found itself under siege by Somali pirates back in 2009, was directed by "United 93" and "Bourne Ultimatum" filmmaker Paul Greengrass, whose last feature, the troubled Matt Damon vehicle "Green Zone," proved an underwhelming and costly flop. But by all accounts from those who have seen it, "Captain Phillips" is the director back on his game, with a tense and enthralling real-life thriller. Although how successful it ultimately is seems to be up for grabs depending on how moved you are by it and how questionable you find the film's racial politics. Also, stick around to watch the new Japanese trailer for the film.
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Captain Phillips

"It's like the last half hour of 'Zero Dark Thirty' but for the whole movie." That was someone's description of "Captain Phillips" when we quizzed them about the film earlier today. The film, which stars Tom Hanks as the titular captain of the Maersk Alabama, a ship that found itself under siege by Somali pirates back in 2009, was directed by "United 93" and "Bourne Ultimatum" filmmaker Paul Greengrass, whose last feature, the troubled Matt Damon vehicle "Green Zone," proved an underwhelming and costly flop. But by all accounts from those who have seen it, "Captain Phillips" is the director back on his game, with a tense and enthralling real-life thriller. Although how successful it ultimately is seems to be up for grabs depending on how moved you are by it and how questionable you find the film's racial politics. Also, stick around to watch the new Japanese trailer for the film.

Below is a rundown of the various early reactions to "Captain Phillips," which seem to be, for the most part, extremely positive. You'll find what some reviewers think are the movie's Oscar chances, their problems with the film's perceived racial politics, and just how good they think Hanks really is (answer: very fucking good). Plus, as an added bonus, watch the new Japanese trailer (courtesy of Latino Review).

Mike Ryan from the Huffington Post wrote: "It's one of my favorite movies of the year… Greengrass has made an excellent reconstruction of the events surrounding the Maersk Alabama and what happened to the real-life Captain Phillips -- an event that I suspect many people, like me, know about but don't know a lot about. Tom Hanks gives his best performance of the last 10 years (there's a money scene at the film's crescendo that I'm still thinking about). Most important, though, is that Greengrass nails the target in how to present people from one of the most impoverished and dangerous countries on the planet. Greengrass condemns their criminal acts, but he does not condemn the human beings who committed those acts -- which would have been the easy thing to do."

Scott Foundas of Variety was impressed but ultimately felt it wasn't nearly as powerful as a recent film that covered similar ground: "No one in movies today, with the possible exceptions of Kathryn Bigelow and Ken Loach, does you-are-there realism better than Greengrass, further enhanced by the crackerjack editing of longtime collaborator Christopher Rouse (who also earns a co-producer credit here). Yet “Captain Phillips” suffers from a certain vague feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, both in Greengrass’ own filmography and, more explicitly, in the excellent recent import “A Hijacking,” which dramatized a nearly identical case of a Somali pirate attack on a Danish cargo vessel, albeit with even less of a happy ending. There, director Tobias Lindholm built up a fierce emotional tension by inserting scenes of not just the crew’s families back home, but also the mercenary tactics of the shipping company itself, weighing the value of human lives against the corporate bottom line. Here, there is something too dry and austere about Greengrass and Ray’s telescoped vision, which touches only fleetingly on the pirates’ motives, the suffering of the Somali people and the collateral damage of global capitalism."

Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter was impressed with the film as a whole but more delighted, in particular, with Hanks' performance: "But more powerful even than that is Hanks' stunned response to the attack and his emotional aftermath. Hysteria, delayed reaction, wordless silence—these have been seen many times in dramatized accounts of traumatic events. But Hanks has come up with something different, a rendering of a state of shock quite unique in which his altered condition stands in extreme contrast to the routine questions and reassurances of the attending nurse. It's an extraordinary scene, one for which there is little precedent."

Next door at Indiewire, Eric Kohn awarded the movie a B, concluding: "It's hard to imagine "Captain Phillips" in the hands of any other filmmaker -- and "Captain Phillips" in the hands of Greengrass looks exactly like anyone familiar with his work would expect. It does justice to the material even while playing too conscientiously by the book. For better or worse, Greengrass' virtuous approach is a thinkpiece on imperialism that's been smuggled into commercial escapism. "I know how to handle America," the head kidnapper asserts. The outcome, it seems, suggests that America feels the same way about him."

Oscar prognosticator Kristopher Tapley, who assessed the movie's Oscar chances at Hitfix, thinks it could sweep up: " The whole film is sure to be a contender across the board, not merely in the acting ranks. And at the top of the list of accomplishments is Greengrass' crisp direction in tandem with thrilling editing from Oscar-winner Christopher Rouse. The 135-minute running time just clicks by. It's not breakneck pacing but it feels expertly assembled, unfolding at just the right rate. Barry Ackroyd's photography puts you right in the middle of the action while the quality of the sound design -- hugely important for a film that takes place at sea -- can't be overstated. Henry Jackman's score thrills and soars in equal measure and could also be something to watch for in an always unpredictable category." 

Kyle Buchanan at New York Magazine's Vulture blog, while enthusiastic about the film overall, is more skeptical about its Oscar chances: "Do I think 'Captain Phillips' will be nominated for Best Picture? At this point, I do: It's an impressive feat of moviemaking, likely to catch on at the box office. That said, I heard one notion advanced after my screening that though 'Captain Phillips' is based on a true story, the optics of this film — where wild-eyed black villains attack decent, hard-working white people — may make some Academy members uncomfortable and could seem out of step with a cinematic year that boasts Fruitvale StationThe Butler, and the soon-to-come awards season juggernaut 12 Years a Slave."

Alfonso Duralde at The Wrap also brings up the movie's "iffy racial politics" in his review: "But while Phillips comes off as resourceful, brave and dedicated, his captors more often than not resemble zombies — Greengrass often shoots them in a way that makes their eyes invisible, rendering them soulless. The group’s leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gets in a few lines about how his people are victimized by larger nations (who have overfished the waters) and the local warlords (who pocket whatever fortunes these pirates manage to pilfer), but he mostly comes off as a mere monster, constantly chewing khat leaves and glowering… Greengrass is obviously no colonist — his “Bloody Sunday” was an impassioned tale of Northern Ireland bearing the brunt of British violence — but his portrayal here of a noble white officer suffering at the hands of insidious black pirates smacks of Rudyard Kipling."

Awards Daily: "This is a film that could have easily been made by the numbers. But any intelligent person already knows that a ragtag group of hijackers who dare to attack the property of the United States — shoeless teenage nomads going up against the Navy SEALS, for god’s sake — has no earthly shot at winning this game. Greengrass means to go deeper than the foregone conclusion."

"Captain Phillips" opens the New York Film Festival before opening nationally on October 11th. 

This article is related to: Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips


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