Captain Phillips Movie Review
With an attention to documentary detail that makes everything viscerally realistic, this film grabs hold and never lets go, cranking the suspense to nearly unbearable levels and then tightening its grip even further. Like director Greengrass' United 93, this is a film that makes us forget our daily routine, sending us on a harrowing journey that feels more like a life experience than watching a movie.
It's based on true events from March 2009, when Richard Phillips (Hanks) took a routine job captaining a cargo ship filled with food aid from Oman to Kenya. Then off the coast of Somalia, they're attacked by the tenacious pirate Muse (Abdi) and his three cohorts (Abdirahman, Ahmed and Ali). These aren't terrorists, they're desperate young men who take violent action only because they have to. But their demands for money go unmet, and the stand-off escalates as Phillips' crew fights back against the armed intruders. Then the American Navy responds with overwhelming force, trying to calm the situation without getting Phillips killed.
Aside from one background sequence in Somalia, we watch the entire story through Phillips' eyes, which makes us feel like we are right in the middle of it. Greengrass insists on realism, refusing to indulge in digital trickery when he can get real ships and helicopters out on the ocean instead. This gives the film a jolt of authenticity that's impossible to re-create in a studio, as we can feel the isolation of the expansive sea as well as the dangerous claustrophobia in the pod-like lifeboat where the climactic scenes play out. And there isn't a false note. Even with a well-known actor like Hanks in the central role, we are completely drawn in.
In the harrowing climactic sequence, the intensity becomes seriously nerve-wracking, and Hanks plays the role with a sense of inner terror like nothing we've seen him do before. And he makes the film's final scene simply heart-stopping in its emotional wallop. Meanwhile, Abdi matches Hanks step by step with an equally balanced performance that gives weight to Muse's side of the story. Yes, Greengrass refuses to find easy villains in his movies, preferring to put the events into a larger context that only makes it that much more involving. This is expert filmmaking that's so thrilling that we feel like we need debriefing when it's over.