Comparing oranges and apples tends not to be conducive to any critical discourse, but to get something off my chest that I can’t shake (and hopefully provides some convincing context), in the fall sweepstakes to create the most gripping, immersive and emotionally resonant survival tale, Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” has the surprisingly thematically similar “Gravity” licked. With apologies to Alfonso Cuarón’s film, which I enjoyed, the buzzier effort may be an enveloping visual tour-de-force, but the one (wo)man-against-the-universe endurance saga in space lacks in character development and genuinely convincing emotional stakes. These are not, however, narrative areas that “Captain Phillips” is deficient in. In fact, its character and rich emotional layers are what elevates the film from a precisely-told absorbing thriller into something much more potent and powerful: a breathtakingly harrowing tale of survival and grueling desperation that redefines the term “nailbiter.”
Tom Hanks stars as the eponymous Captain Richard Phillips, a Massachusetts family man and seaman on the eve of leaving his wife and children for a voyage on the MV Maersk Alabama halfway around the world. Worried about his children’s future, Phillips and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) discuss where their son is heading in life while realizing that no matter how often they’ve experienced these longtime sojourns with Phillips at sea, these separations are never easy on any members of the family.
Joined by his Chief Mate and second-in-command Shane Murphy (Michael Chernus), the razor sharp, practical and no-nonsense commanding officer Phillips quickly puts his mission of transporting cargo (some of it relief supplies bound for Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya) around the Somali Gulf of Aden, into focus. Warned of pirate activity in the region, Phillips cautions his crew (David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson and Chris Mulkey all play members of the Alabama) to stay on high alert and keeps them on their toes with surprise drills.
Contemporaneously, a collision course that the Alabama is unaware of unfolds. Somali bandit bosses roll up into poverty-stricken shanty towns waving AK-47s. With the Somali fishing industry decimated (though this point is suggested and never directly stated), fishermen have few to zero options. What meager employment is to be found is the high-risk work of boarding skiffs and laying siege on barges ten times their size, David and Goliath style. Men don’t volunteer to lead these perilous missions, they fight over the job, the opportunities being so few and the circumstances that dire. One man in particular, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, (Barkhad Abdi), looks particularly hungry and desperate. With the Alabama sailing around the horn of Africa, turning back is not a choice for the Somalis, and an inevitably fateful course is set that is one of the most agonizing and visceral encounters you will experience in cinemas this year.
And so over the course of an impossibly tense and punishing 134-minutes, “Captain Phillips” puts its audience through an emotional grinder that pits these two men against each other in a desperate battle for survival that also includes a kidnapping, and the involvement of the Navy and merciless SEAL teams right out of “Zero Dark Thirty.” And it’s an experience that will make you feel like you’ve been taken hostage with everyone on screen.
We won’t be the first or last people to consider “Captain Phillips” as a companion piece or cousin to Greengrass’ “United 93,” and that’s because the filmmaker is, as proven here once again, an incontestable master of dramatizing real-time, real-life situations and scenarios with a deeply investigative eye. And like “United 93,” it is unrelenting, engrossing, heart-stopping stuff. The white-knuckled immediacy Greengrass delivers to every scene is transportive, dropping you like a passenger, gagged and bound, into this extremely volatile situation. The fear, panic and emotional pain every character endures is utterly tangible.
Hanks is tremendous in the role of Richard Phillips – the nuance with which he unveils layers of control, the lack thereof, fear, dread, escalating panic and hopelessness is astounding and hard to watch at times (in particular, an astonishing post-traumatic sequence has “wow” Oscar nomination clip written all over it). And yet going toe-to-toe with the lead is the main Somali pirate Barkhad Abdi who is an electrifying revelation (also remarkably good are his pirate co-stars all played by first-timers, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahet M. Al). Emaciated and all wide-eyed raw nerves, the level of authenticity Abdi brings to the role is nothing short of flawless. Slowly transforming from ruthlessly cool to agitated to hopeless, the burning desperation Abdi conveys in his eyes is something truly frightening (and don’t be surprised if this total unknown’s name pops up as a serious contender in the Supporting field).
Barry Ackroyd’s hand-held cinematography certainly lives up to the vertiginousness Greengrass’ films are known for in spots, but it’s a more controlled virtuoso dizziness akin to his work on the “The Hurt Locker” and “Green Zone” than the sometimes geography free-for-all of the ‘Bourne’ films (shot by different DPs). Henry Jackman (“X-Men: First Class,” “Kick-Ass”) replaces Greengrass’ go-to composer John Powell, and while the musician hasn’t really charted in the past, his tribal-like pulse-pounding work here is A-game material that ratchets up the already excruciatingly intense narrative.
Featuring Omar Berdouni, Yul Vazquez as Navy officer Captain Frank, and “Pacific Rim” star Max Martini as a SEAL Commander, this solid but unshowy company of supporting characters round out the cast in workmanlike fashion. If there’s a criticism to be laid at “Captain Phillips” ’ door, it’s that Paul Greengrass’ filmmaking style hasn’t changed one iota and the movie has but one singular focus. That said, why fix what isn’t remotely broken and works in this context? And those who think they have already seen this story told with the celebrated Danish film “A Hijacking” have not witnessed this far superior, super-charged version.
Billy Ray’s exacting, taut script has carefully humanizing geopolitical ideas interspersed throughout—the implication that the Somali seas have been ravaged by commercial fisherman thereby trying to come to terms with their "evil," for instance—and as a result you feel the textured backstory of these hopeless people even if you don’t really see it onscreen. But politics aside, “Captain Phillips” is ultimately a harrowing portrait of desperate men in desperate situations and just how far they’ll go in their dire circumstances. It’s a breathlessly told movie; both meticulous and frenetic, sweat-soaked and methodical. It will take hold and won’t let you go, and it’s one of the most engaging movies of the year. [A]